Every Lost Country

By Stephen Heighton

High-altitude adventure meets morality tale in Steven Heighton’s new novel set on the top of the world. While mountain climbing on the Nepal-Tibet border, an altruistic doctor named Lewis Book, his daughter Sophie, and Amaris, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker, are drawn into a snowballing international crisis when they cross the border trying to help a group of Tibetans fleeing Chinese authorities (the events that set the plot in motion are based on a real incident that occurred in 2006). Soon the well-intentioned Westerners are also on the run, being chased by ATVs, helicopter gunships, and even rocket-firing fighter jets through the mountains. Meanwhile, back in Nepal, Wade Lawson, the expedition’s leader, continues on his quest to conquer a dangerous peak, alone.

There is nothing subtle about the moral map being drawn. Lawson the mountaineer embodies pure will, a superman who wants to rise above all petty and “soft” humanity. Dr. Book, formerly of Doctors Without Borders, is a humanitarian who can’t resist the impulse to reach out to others in need. Recurring motifs help to make the point, like the rope connecting climbers – which Lawson sees only as a drag – reappearing as an umbilical cord, representative of essential human connections and responsibilities. Survival is linked to love, family ties, cooperation, and helping each other. Isolation – from the group, the tribe, the family – leads to death.

This is all rather obvious, in a way reminiscent of Ian McEwan when he gets schematic, and is made more so by Heighton’s not being shy about tossing in the occasional heavy authorial pronouncement. There are, however, a lot of action scenes that keep driving up the tension along the parallel narrative tracks. The writing moves skillfully among a range of different registers, from tragic to (darkly) comic, intimate to political. And the magnificent setting is dramatically evoked on a lush physical canvas that manages to capture the striking qualities of the mountain light and the effects of thin air on perception and consciousness.

Every Lost Country is an ambitious novel, at turns both rough around the edges and overpolished (the ending, in particular, is too tidy). But it has an expansive moral vision wed to a thrilling plot that seems to have borrowed as much from action movies as from political headlines. Perhaps not a match made in heaven, but one that in this case works well enough.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2010.

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