A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published: February 2014
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction
In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.
When Akhmed finds his neighbor’s daughter, Havaa, hiding in the woods with a bright blue suitcase, her takes it upon himself to see to her freedom and care. They hike to an abandoned hospital, where an overworked ethnic Russian, Sonja, treats the sick, dying, and wounded. Sonja, however, has a difficult time welcoming the two into her life. But across five seemingly ordinary days, Akhmed, Havaa, and Sonja’s lives become irrevocably interconnected, past and present coming together in one pivotal moment.
What a remarkable novel.
Marra’s writing was accessible and commercial while still powerfully beautiful and literary. The characters — varied as they were and with drastically different life experiences from our own — were easy to relate to. It’s easy to find at least one character to follow closely and eagerly anticipate their next chapter. The focus on the characters and the human story was appreciated, as the book highlights a tumultuous political moment in recent Chechen history. Marra could’ve easily bogged down a reader with facts and figures.
That said, I wish there would’ve been a bit more information at the beginning of the novel to “set the stage” more, as I wasn’t aware of the struggles between Chechnya and Russia (granted, at the time this was happening, I was a child/selfish teenager).
Compelling read, emotional, shocking, heartfelt, and powerful. An experience to read. Best to go in not knowing too much about this one!
This qualifies as book 12 of 10 library books in 2016.