Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“What parts had she discarded for the sake of her sanity? What had she cut from herself? Had he stared into her pupils he would have emerged, bewildered and blinking, on the far side of the earth. Was he awed by her? Absolutely. Did he respect her? Unequivocally. Want to be anything like her? No, never, not at all.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja Andreyevna Rabina escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. With her sister gone, and the hospital in more dire straits than ever, Sonja sacrifices herself bit by bit to continue saving lives. Meanwhile, from the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to the hospital, and into Sonja’s reluctant care. Dokka’s abduction is the culmination of a series of events which will reveal the strange relationships and connections between disparate people struggling for survival in the midst of a brutal war in which everyone loses.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena centres around the five days in 2004 after Dokka’s abduction, while also spanning the previous decade, and occasionally stretching up to a hundred years into the future. We gain brief glimpses of the past and future outside the timeline of the story proper as Marra skilfully uses third person narration to deliver stunning detail and depth we wouldn’t get from a first person narrative. The omniscient narrator sees connections and events of which the characters remain, for better or worse, totally unaware. Although there is a great deal of flashing backward and forward in time, the timeline at the head of each chapter helps keep events in order, and enforces the currency of the events; far from being set in the distant past, this story takes place between 1996 and 2004, well within the lifetime of most readers.
The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. In the depths of a government facility known as the Landfill, a prisoner is tortured for information, but asked no questions by his interrogators. Indeed, only the power and the beauty of Marra’s writing can carry the reader through the ceaseless stream of horrible, tragic events, allowing us at once to experience them, and contemplate them at philosophic remove, such as Ahkmed’s description of helping build Dokka’s house, which the Feds burnt to the ground:
Carrying the lumber the forty meters from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping, but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried the small treasures that had made Dokka’s house his own.
The grim picture is painted with beautiful words for a reason; the characters find the silver linings where they can, searching for life and hope and forgiveness in the ruins. Though many of the characters despair of saving themselves, they hope that by saving Havaa, they will have done something worthwhile.
Although the conflict and the setting are obscure—indeed largely unknown to Westerners before three weeks ago—Marra has created a cast of characters that will be relatable for everyone, and he weaves just enough history into his narrative to orient us, cleverly using Khassan’s unpublishable 3000 page history of Chechnya to educate and inform. Readers needn’t be familiar with the Chechen struggle for independence before reading this novel, though the events may leave readers interested in knowing more than can possibly be explained in a novel. For those readers, Marra provides a brief bibliography at the end of the book.
Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.
Already read and enjoyed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena? I recommend The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein.