High-altitude adventure meets morality tale in Steven Heighton’s third novel. While mountain climbing along the Nepal–Tibet border, an altruistic doctor named Lewis Book, his daughter, and a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker are drawn into an international crisis when they attempt to help a group of Tibetans fleeing Chinese authorities (the events are based on a real incident that occurred in 2006). Soon, the well-intentioned Westerners are also on the run, being chased through the mountains by ATVs, helicopter gunships, and even rocket-firing fighter jets. Meanwhile, in Nepal, Wade Lawson, the expedition’s leader, continues alone on his quest to conquer a dangerous peak.
There is nothing subtle about the moral map Heighton draws here. Lawson embodies pure will, a superman who wants to rise above 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, like the safety rope that connects climbers to one another, help to make the point. Lawson sees this rope as a drag, something weighing him down. Elsewhere, however, the rope is likened to an umbilical cord, representative of human connection and responsibility. Survival is linked to love, family ties, cooperation, and mutual aid. Isolation – from the group, the tribe, the family – leads to death.
This is all rather obvious – reminiscent of Ian McEwan at his most schematic – and made more so by Heighton’s willingness to toss 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 skilfully through a range of registers, from tragic to (darkly) comic, intimate to political. And the magnificent setting is dramatically evoked on a lush canvas.
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 wedded to a thrilling plot. Perhaps not a match made in heaven, but one that works well enough.