A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By: Anthony Marra
Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of the publisher & GoodReads First Reads programme
In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed–a failed physician–to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.
With The English Patient‘s dramatic sweep and The Tiger’s Wife‘s expert sense of place, Marra gives us a searing debut about the transcendent power of love in wartime, and how it can cause us to become greater than we ever thought possible.
I first heard about this book through the GoodReads First Reads programme where I won a copy. The premise sounded very interesting–I haven’t read any books set in Chechnya beyond what I learned in history classes, which makes this book especially interesting–and it’s already catching some buzz. It will be available for purchase on May 7th.
I was drawn to the story of Akhmed and Havaa from the first page. Anthony Marra paints such a vivid picture of the war-torn state of the Chechen countryside, the danger that both characters face and the gradual discovery of the characters’ respective personalities. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is very much character-driven; the reader is compelled to learn more about the characters, why this smart Russian woman decided to stay behind in this war-torn region, why this man decided to help hide this little girl, etc. The characters of Akhmed, Havaa, Sonja et al. are well-rounded and fully-realised with their own back stories and and flaws.
What’s really wonderful about this book is how it explores the inter-connectiveness between people. It’s through the characters that we unfold their back stories and, in effect, learn how connected they are either through other people or certain events that they experienced. Moments and mysteries that I thought would not be resolved or explored further somehow crop up later on in characters’ memories and flashbacks which were a pleasant surprise. It adds to the overall mystery and wonder of human lives and the cumulative nature of personal histories to who these characters are in the present-day of the novel.
The narrative doesn’t let the reader forget that these characters are living in a war-torn society. It shapes the characters’ actions and mindsets, it’s in every scene and the way they get on with their lives. Despite of the quiet wonders that occur throughout the novel, there’s this foreboding sense that things can go bad at any moment and the dangers that come with such a war state lurking at every corner. But despite of this danger, there’s a humour amidst these bad situations that is reminiscent of David Benioff’s The City of Thieves which serve as a reprieve to the tension (my favourite has to do with Akhmed’s fascination with a certain American figure).
Overall, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a novel to experience, I don’t think this review could even justify that. The characterisations, the way that the author brings his characters and the war-torn setting to life, the dialogue are just a marvel to read. I highly recommend this novel, period ^_~