The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep follows Elias Trifannis (“Trif” to his closest friends), a Greek-Canadian on leave from fighting with the Canadian military in Afghanistan after a routine operation goes wrong. After a night out with a woman also goes wrong, he slips under a miles-long fence, entering the supposedly deserted territory of Cyprus caught between Turkey and Greece, the city known as Varosha.
But of course, it isn’t deserted. Steven Heighton’s novel is full of intentional contradictions: an empty town bursting with life, a man who you can trust though he won’t always tell you the truth, a fighter who is a lover, an enemy who is an ally, a prison in paradise, a library organized by feel rather than by mind.
The prose is similarly at odds with itself: at once poetic and purple, while also plain and simple. Heighton manages to imbue his work with poetry without getting caught up in the florid imagery of his setting. It occasionally makes for a rift in your cognizance: the setting is so lush, colourful, flavourful, full of love and happiness and life that it is easy to forget that the people of Varosha are refugees, some officially dead, some in love with their prison, some who may never be able to return to society and civilization. It is this rift in thinking that allows Heighton to create characters who seemingly contradict themselves, all while making perfect cohesive sense. A young woman is mean to be nice, a man sings while directing his prisoner, another man’s war is all holiday, a nightingale that sings in the morning.
In the canon of Canadian literary fiction, Heighton’s book stands out because of its setting. If you’ve become used to the lush coniferous trees that line Canadian landscapes, the flora of The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep will be a welcome change of scenery. Vines creep and crawl, flowers burst in colour and fragrance, and the empty landscape provides everything a town of refugees could need to survive.
As Trif’s physical wounds heal, so too do the wounds in his heart and his soul. He comes to see the population of Varosha not as his captors, but as his friends and family. In a town where sharing one’s personal history is a gift not undertaken lightly, the friendships forged here are based entirely on the short time Trif spends with these people, but are no less deep or meaningful. The villagers rely on the network they create together, each an integral part. So when some of them contemplate returning to life, it threatens the fabric of Varosha’s human existence.
There’s some debate about whether The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep is a thriller. The plot isn’t able to decide for itself either. At time it trots along quickly, full of action and excitement and gunfights, at other times it’s slow and as relaxed as a paradise-on-earth can be. Compared with some other books described as “thrillers,” Nightingale is more exciting, more beautiful, introspective, careful, and unique.