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 isn’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. – from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 120 –
One snowy night in Chechnya, in a small village called Eldar where everyone knows everyone else, Akhmed watches from behind his curtains as Russian soldiers drag his friend and neighbor, Dokka, from his home. As they torch the house, Akhmed watches horrified, and wonders, “Where is Haava?” After the soldiers leave, Akhmed races to the woods behind Dokka’s home where he finds Haava, only eight years old, huddled in the dark with a blue suitcase of “souvenirs” at her side. Leaving his disabled and senile wife alone in her bed, Akhmed leads Haava through the woods, skirting the road blocks and land mines to a hospital in another town. He pleads with the hospital’s only doctor, a woman named Sonja, to take Haava in and offer her refuge. But Sonja has problems of her own including sleep deprivation, and her sister’s disappearance, and when she hesitates, Akmed quickly offers his services at the hospital.
Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is a powerful, poignant, and deeply moving story that unfolds over five days, but also takes the reader back into the pasts of its characters where surprising connections are revealed. The characters are who drive this narrative set in a war torn, violent part of the world between 1994 and 2004. To gain further insight into the novel and its characters, it is helpful for the reader to understand some of the major events which occurred in Chechnya during those years.
The First Chechen War, also known as the War in Chechnya, happened between 1994 and 1996 and culminated in the Battle of Grozny. Brutal guerrilla warfare defeated Russian federal forces in their attempt to gain control of Chechnya. Despite a initial peace treaty, the Second Chechen War was launched by the Russian Federation in August of 1999. Later that year, the government restored Russian federal control over the territory. By the end of the war in 2009, death toll estimates ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 dead or missing, mostly civilians in Chechnya. Western European rights groups estimate there have been about 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya since 1999. These gruesome statistics are the backdrop for Maara’s novel.
What Marra does so effortlessly in his book, is to humanize the conflict in Chechyna. Sonja is an incredibly skilled doctor who has learned to set aside her emotions to do her job. Even her love for her sister, Natasha, has been tempered and controlled. But now, with fatigue and burnout taking their toll, her cool exterior has started to crack. Akhmed is a trained doctor who prefers art over science. Here is a man who reorders the stacks of art books at his ill wife’s bedside “so that the first book she reached for was new to her.” Here is a man who, when faced with the wrecked body of patient who has stepped on a land mine, walks past that person in order to drape a lab coat over the head of an eight year old girl so that she does not have to witness the horror. It is Akhmed who uses his skills as an artist in order to reconstruct the faces of the “disappeared” so that their families may somehow have them back.
When he graduated from medical school in the bottom tenth he didn’t know the disgrace weighing on him like a hundred rubles in five-kopek coins would one day be converted to less cumbersome denominations, when families, like this one, came, knowing he was too incompetent a doctor to save their son’s life, but so skilled and well-trained an artist he might bring their son back. - from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 139 -
And then there is Haava, an eight year old girl who has lost her mother, watched her father be dragged away by soldiers, and is now living in a hospital where trauma arrives daily.
“Are the Feds going to take me, too?” To ask the question was to acknowledge that it could happen, and in Havva’s experience, any horror that could happen eventually did. Better to armor yourself with the unreal. Better to turn inward, hide in the dark waters among the sea anemones, down deep where the sharks can’t see you. - from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 101-
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena weaves the lives of these primary characters back and forth in time. In doing so, Marra explores themes of interconnectedness, hope, betrayal, and love. Even while showing us the horror of a neighbor informing on a friend, Marra defines the very essence of what it means to be human.
This is a beautifully wrought novel that brought tears to my eyes. Achingly real and an unflinching look at the impact of war on every day people, it is not a story I will soon forget. Readers interested in historical fiction centered around Russia and its neighbors, as well as readers of literary fiction, will find this a book not to be missed.
Read other reviews of this novel by following the links on the TLC Book Tour Page.
Meg Wolitzer also wrote a terrific review of this book on NPR.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher as part of a TLC Book Tour.
About the Author:
Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, ANTHONY MARRA has won the Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize, and a scholarship to Bread Loaf. He is also the recipient of the 2012 Whiting Writers’ Award. He has studied, resided, and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.
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