A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

15797715This book will break your heart. When I finished reading it and closed the book, all I could do was just sit in my chair and try and process the profundity of what I had just read. I wasn’t expecting this book. Be warned then. This book will break your heart.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, takes it’s title from a Russian medical textbook. The book defines life as “a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation” (184*). It’s a very strange, poetic definition for life, but it fits this book so well. And it’s beautifully written. I normally don’t comment on the writing, but Marra’s style is too wonderful to let pass without comment. There were parts that made me pause instead of charging on to the next part.

Marra’s tale is set during five days during the second war in Chechnya in 2004, with flashbacks as far as the 1950s. The chapters detail the lives of five people in the small village of Eldár and the somewhat larger town of Volchansk at Hospital No. 6. Marra gives us the story of Akhmad, the worst doctor in his village (possibly all of Chechnya); Sonja, the ethnic Russian doctor who came back from London for her sister; Natasha, the sister who tried to escaped but was sold into slavery; Khassan, the historian who survived so much; Ramzan, the informer. Though they don’t realize it most of the time, these characters’ actions touch each others lives in incredible and fateful ways.

Marra opens his tale with Akhmad rescuing and hiding the daughter of a friend who has been disappeared. At eight years old, Havaa is an innocent. But because of the Russians’ policy of destroying the families of anyone they think might have been fighting them or helping those fighting them**, she will be kidnapped and probably killed if they ever get their hands on her. Akhmad takes her from their village to Volchansk and talks the lone surgeon at Hospital No. 6 into sheltering her. Akhmad takes a job there, but has to return to  Eldár to care for his paralyzed and senile wife. This is the heart of the story.

From this heart, Marra widens his view to show us how these characters survived the first Chechnyan war. He shows us what happened to them all, shows us the moments in their childhoods that led them to become the people they are. Sometimes, he tells you who will survive the second war and what will happen to them when the violence stops. Without these moments, I don’t know if I could have finished the book because so many terrible (in the full sense of the word) things happen. Characters are tortured and murdered, because that’s what happened during the wars. Two peoples, divided by more than religion and ethnicity, tore each other apart in Chechnya. I needed those little doses of hope.

This is a book that deserves, needs, to be read.


* From the Kindle edition.
** Depending on who’s side you take, the Chechnian fighters could be described as revolutionaries, fundamentalists, jihadists, freedom fighters, or insurgents. I’m not sure what the right term to use is, since I don’t know enough about the conflict to even begin to have an opinion about it.

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