Anthony Marra’s first novel, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, opens as Havaa, an eight-year-old girl hiding in the woods, watches her father Dokka being abducted by Russian soldiers in the middle of the night in a war-torn village in Chechnya. Also watching from his window across the street is their close friend and neighbor, Akhmed. After searching everywhere for the daughter they know exists, the Russian soldiers finally leave. Akhmed rescues Havaa from the woods and escapes with her to the one place he thinks she will be safe from the Feds: the local hospital. As they are walking out of the village during the cold night, we learn what has happened to many of the villagers who used to live there.
“At the end of the village, where the forest narrowed on the road, they passed a meter-tall portrait nailed to a tree trunk. Two years earlier, after forty-one of the villagers had disappeared in a single day, Akhmed had drawn their forty-one portraits on forty-one plywood boards, weatherproofed and hung them throughout the village.”
"A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is a spectacular debut novel about endurance and resilience amidst the insanity of war."
Armed with only a doctor’s name, “Sonja Andreyevna Rabina,” Akhmed finally arrives at the hospital to find that Sonja is the only remaining doctor, running the entire place herself. Sonja thinks, “What did he expect? Those with advanced degrees, personal savings, and the foresight to flee had done so.” She quickly turns them away, at which point Akhmed offers his medical services as a licensed doctor, proposing to stay and work until a home is found for Havaa.
The beginning of each chapter is highlighted by a date on a timeline that runs from 1994 to 2004. It crosscuts among several stories and characters, and goes back and forth in time. Eventually we learn that Sonja only returns from a secure life as a surgeon in London to rescue her beloved sister, Natasha. “She wouldn’t climb out of bed for her sister, but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn’t cross a room, but she had crossed a continent.”
The other central characters in the novel include Akhmed’s good friend and neighbor Khassan, a 79-year-old scholar who has spent most of his life writing a tome about Chechen history, and a couple of hours burning its pages with his pack of wild dogs. His son is Ramzan, an informer for the Russian Feds who has betrayed not only Havaa and Dokka, but also most of the town.
The book traces the roots of the Chechen wars through the personal histories of its characters --- characters who are all interconnected in some way. Although he tells a very dark, disturbing and at times painfully brutal story, Marra’s gift is his feel for language and the construction of beautifully wrought sentences that masterfully convey unfathomable loss and the horror of war. I found the following paragraph to be particularly moving.
“Sonja stood and walked to the flat, afraid of what she might hear next. At the kitchen table she examines 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. She raised the glass to her lips. The water was clean.”
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is a spectacular debut novel about endurance and resilience amidst the insanity of war.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on May 10, 2013
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena