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.
People come and go, and in a country suffering through two back-to-back wars and the sudden disappearances of loved ones, everyone is haunted by something. Marra captures all of it with achingly beautiful prose:
Sonja stood and walked to the flat, afraid of what she might bear next. At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence wasn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.
The whole book is exquisitely written, and despite all of the horrors the wars have created, the characters cling to shreds of hope to get them through their traumas. It’s an absorbing and heartbreaking reading experience.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was published on May 7, 2013 by Hogarth, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.
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