Set in war-torn Chechnya, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena begins with terror. Russian soldiers burst into a house and abduct a man in the middle of the night, burning down his house and taking him somewhere no one ever returns from. His neighbor and longtime friend, Akhmed, watches helplessly until they leave, then races over to save what the soldiers left without: hiding in the snowy forest behind the house is his friend’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa. Knowing that the soldiers will surely come back for her, Akhmed takes it upon himself to keep the girl safe.
Akhmed inadvertently makes a choice that will change everyone’s lives. His reasoning is initially unclear, but he decides that Havaa will be safe at the hospital in a nearby city. He knows of a skilled female surgeon there — unheard of in their culture — and he’s sure that if he can just get Havaa there, she’ll be safe. The reality of the situation is quite different. He does indeed encounter that female surgeon, Sonja, but she’s cold and arrogant. She’s the only doctor in the entire hospital; aside from her assistant and the security guard, everyone else fled years ago. The last thing she needs is a child running around. Still, by offering to help at the hospital, Akhmed manages to get her to agree.
Though the book technically only spans five days, it actually jumps back and forth from 1994 – 2004. Marra has created a complex web of relationships that extends far beyond their current situation; events that happened years ago set off numerous chain reactions that are finally manifesting themselves all these years later. Even secondary characters who have never met are somehow connected: Sonja’s beautiful and traumatized younger sister, Natasha; Ramzan, the village informant whom everyone shuns; Ramzan’s lonely father, Khassan, who must also bear the stigma of his son’s actions; and Dokka, Havaa’s father. So much is shrouded by loss, violence, and mystery.