Varosha is a real place that reads like a dream-world. Once a luxurious resort town within the Greek-Cypriot city of Famagusta, it has, since the 1974 Turkish invasion, become a ghost town, abandoned, fenced in, and placed under the occupation of the Turkish Armed Forces. As rendered in Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Varosha is fantastically alluring, a place to seek refuge from the intrusive terrors of the 21st century – a ruin-as-paradise. Its spectral avenues and skyline of “dead hotels” invoke the collapsed civilizations of J.G. Ballard or the discreetly inhabited post-disaster landscapes found in David McMillan’s photographs of Chernobyl and Pripyat. Varosha provides a wildly fertile setting for a novel, so it isn’t a categorical slight to note that this setting is often the best thing about The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep.
Elias is a 30-year-old Canadian with Greek roots who became a soldier to appease his dying father. Recovering from an experience endured while attempting to flush out adversaries in Afghanistan, Elias pays a visit to his aunt and uncle, exiled from Varosha and living in nearby Larnaca. There Elias meets a fetching Turkish journalist; they go for drinks, flirt. Later that night, in a bracing scene of coitus interruptus, Elias and the journalist are attacked by Turkish officers on a darkened beach. Under a flurry of gunfire, Elias runs for his life and leaves the journalist behind. He winds up in Varosha.
In contrast to the sinister, noirish tenor of the opening scenes, there is something almost fable-like about Elias’s experience in Varosha. He’s held prisoner by a small band of outsiders living off the grid: men, women, and children surviving off the still-ample tinned foods and toilet paper appropriated from the surrounding derelict lodgings. Fearing that he might expose their secret enclave, Elias’s captors don’t want to let him go; over time, Elias realizes he might want to stay in any case.
Heighton’s works include the novel Afterlands, the story collection The Dead are More Visible, and the poetry collection The Waking Comes Late, which received a 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award. The author is clearly prolific and able to shift between various literary forms, yet reading his fourth novel, you have to wonder if Heighton’s gifts are best served in contexts more compact, dense, and lyric-friendly than this Graham Greene–esque tale of trauma, clandestine activities, and thorny geopolitics. Momentum is repeatedly sacrificed in favour of exhaustive, at times overly decorative description; there are awkward insertions of Greek and Turkish words, along with translations, in the midst of conversations that are ostensibly being spoken in Greek or Turkish; and the third-person narration, with its infrequent yet conspicuous interjections of commentary, seems indecisive with regard to its perspective.
There are countless fascinating facts and ideas scattered throughout The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, from the Greek notion of death as the dispersal of a person’s vital elements to the peculiar attributes of vulture poo. At times the story feels like a delivery service for the author’s studious research, or scaffolding for his smart, poetic observations on place, language, and culture.
The novel’s many strengths are marred mainly by its handling of plot. Aside from some clumsy but forgivable expository dialogue – “please, don’t speak of what happened in Kandahar” – the key stumbling points concern predictable twists and bald foreshadowing. Spoiler alert (I guess): in one scene, the Turkish journalist, a well-known, controversial leftist and outspoken critic of her country’s current regime, wakes from a coma and, still in the clutches of the murderously corrupt Cypriot Turkish military, proudly declares her plan to publish a damning exposé as soon as she gets back to Istanbul. It is not a great shock when soon after this scene an unfortunate “accident” befalls the journalist.
I would be remiss, however, if I failed to mention Erkan Kaya, the colonel overseeing Turkey’s Cypriot interests and a truly inspired character – one Heighton himself seems so drawn to that he nearly eclipses Elias as the novel’s focal point. Kaya is something of a charismatic slacker, an ingratiating yes-man determined above all to maintain an extremely pleasant status quo. Everything is all right with Kaya, so long as he can enjoy his tennis, his sunshine, the camaraderie of his unit, and occasional visits from his teenaged children.
There are several non-narrative elements that make The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep worth reading: the chance to explore Varosha through Heighton’s enthralled gaze, and the fragments of regional history, culture, and politics. But among those elements deriving strictly from within the conventions of the novel, what redeems the book most are the scenes involving Kaya, a memorable, contradictory, despicable rogue who could easily be afforded a novel all his own.