Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

An enticing cover, devoid of people. An odd and intriguing title. Desperate sounding jacket copy. What can all this possibly have in common with the Chechen wars? The title, taken from a Soviet era medical textbook, is the definition of life and the small, blue suitcase on the cover, holding talismans from her own life and from the refugees who passed through her family's home, belongs to a young girl whose life, like all of the characters contained in the novel, has changed irrevocably because of the latest war and the rent it has left in society in Anthony Marra's haunting tale.

When Havaa's arborist father Dokka is taken away by the Russian military and her home burned to the ground, she hides in the forest with her suitcase until neighbor and friend Akhmed finds her there. Knowing that she's in danger from the same people who took her father, he takes her to the nearest bigger city to the hospital. There he finds overworked but brilliant surgeon Sonja doing her best to keep the hospital running with a skeleton staff. She has no interest in this orphan of war but when Akhmed, having attended medical school as a dismal student more interested in art than medicine, offers up his own limited medical knowledge in return for her promise to shelter Havaa, she agrees that the girl can stay.

Marra plays with the timeline in the novel, jumping from 1994 to 2004 and to points in between seemingly at random, weaving together a complex narrative line. The various different time periods allow the reader to learn about the characters' pasts and their motivations without interrupting the precarious and dangerous present. The history of this ethnically charged area and its recurring partisan wars is woven through the tales of each of the characters. In addition to Havaa, Dokka, Akhmed, and Sonja, there is also Khassan, an elderly man who is ashamed of his son, Ramzan, the village informer who has caused so many of his fellow ethnic Muslims to disappear, and there is Natasha, Sonja's younger sister, who has demons of her own and is stripped of her dignity and hope by unending war and who has gone missing without a trace.

Although the book and the war it depicts is brutal, it explores much of what makes people human beings. Each of the characters faces the challenge of maintaining their humanity in the face of great inhumanity and some of them succeed better than others. Each, in his or her own way, looks for forgiveness and absolution over decisions the violent, partisan war has made them make. In some ways the characters can be very unemotional, unwilling to risk more of themselves to the instability and random cost of war. They have to find ways of keeping living even amidst lives filled with uncertainty and unresolved, agonizing mysteries. And yet no matter how agonized they are, they are careful to mute their reactions, to focus on the here and now, to live in the present, reaching out a hand if they can while acknowledging the horrendous cost they have already paid and might have to keep paying.

Marra does a masterful job weaving together the cast of seemingly only tangentially connected characters and their stories in unexpected and awe-inspiring ways. The writing is gorgeous and his ability to keep things both unresolved and tie things up enough to satisfy the reader is impressive indeed. You don't need to have even a passing knowledge of Chechnya or its enduring instability because of so many unfinished wars and on-going tensions to see this novel for the impressive debut that it is.  Like the definition of life that gives the novel its name, this book is indeed its own constellation of vital phenomena.

1 comment:

  1. Have this book though not got to it yet. Thanks for the review.


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