Steven Heighton, 271 pgs, Biblioasis, biblioasis.com, $23
Steven Heighton has got talent, no question. He’s also kind of nauseatingly accomplished. Reaching Mythimna is just one of two 2020 book releases (the other is a children’s book), and he is slated to release an album of songs and a volume of poetry this year, too. I picked this book up because I wanted a first-hand account of the Syrian refugee crisis — glaringly expelled from the headlines recently — and I knew Heighton could spin a story. I was determined to be unimpressed before reading. As a celebrated author who could afford to set aside his novel and jet off to a Greek island to do charity work (and write yet another book about it), Heighton is hardly a sympathetic narrator to me. I gave in all too quickly, however, as I became immersed in his experiences volunteering with a small refugee operation on the island of Lesbos in 2015.
Lesbos is not far from Moira, a famous chokepoint for thousands of Syrian and Middle-Eastern refugees crossing the Aegean to Europe, and it is as tough as can be. Ruthless smugglers cut corners by stuffing life-jackets full of sawdust; aid workers quibble over a generator neither one currently requires, while a misanthropic photographer amasses profitable images of desperate refugees and exhausted volunteers. The book contains very little background or analysis. It is not a history or a travelogue. Instead, you get a meticulous assemblage of vignettes and character sketches in the hands of a masterful storyteller who wears his values on his page. Heighton evokes George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia early on, and the comparison to that famous meat-grinder for idealism is apt. Meanwhile, he remains alert to his outsider status and his privilege and avoids speaking for the suffering of others. It is an impressive accomplishment, especially to the reader who set out to be unimpressed.