Summary: 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.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging For Books.
For Sonja, still haunted by the disappearance of her sister Natasha, 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.
My thoughts: Marra’s story is driven by the setting and the characters. The story plays out in five days, but also spans the decade of the Chechen Wars, the flitting timelines circle the string of coincidences that bring Sonja, Akhmed and Havaa together. It is a walk through war and peace and brittle Chechnya itself becomes a central figure. The book uses language to add character, Chechen of course, Russian which sets Sonja and Natasha apart, Arabic which Havaa fumbles with and the English of London, where Sonja leaves her fiance to search for her sister; words of love, madness and the silent language of a man’s hatred for his son. The dialogue is masterful and achieves what vivid descriptions don’t always, creating both a tie and a sinking distance between you and the people of the story who seem all the more real in the detail.
Eight year old Havaa has never seen a fat person; Natasha doesn’t ask a dying man his name for fear that he will die and she will be left with just a name; when Ramzan, the informer, feels like a criminal, he reminds himself that a land without law is a land without crime; when the Feds torture the prisoners, it is understood that pain, rather than information is the true purpose of the interrogation; Khassan burns his life’s worth of writing, his only book, because he wants to be forgotten.
How often does a novel make you feel that its fictional characters must be thankful to the author for telling their story? How often do you find a novel that has no judgment, where the author has carefully extricated himself from the book and has let the characters monopolize your mind? Ever read a book that shows you a man teaching his six year old daughter how to use a gun on one page and on the next, makes you laugh at a man who knows no world beyond his village and thinks Ronald McDonald is the president of America? How often has a novel made you feel insignificant, shown you the worst of times and the spark of hope in them? How often does a book make you feel, with its unabashed honesty, like a voyeur? Like you’re prying on things too difficult and courageous, too complicated for you with your simple past to comprehend?
Rarely, that’s the answer. You rarely find a book that achieves all of that. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a really good book. It makes you grateful to be in your world, and will make you stronger in the face of your problems. But as every really good book must, it feels more genuine than the real reality you’re in and despite all its horrors, you’ll find yourself dragging your feet when it tries to send you back.
(Havaa and Akhmed eat their first meal, a hunk of dry black bread, after Havaa’s father’s abduction)
She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn’t fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.
“You shouldn’t rush'” he said. “There are no taste buds in your stomach.”
She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. “There’s no hunger in your tongue,” she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.
(Sonja, making a doctor out of Akhmed, the gentle artist.)
She needed another set of hands, no matter how fumbling and uncertain they might be. Not that she’d admit it to him. She had to harden him, teach him that saving a life and nurturing a life are different processes, and to succeed in the former one must dispense with the pathos of the latter.
(Khassan and his fleeting affair with the love of his life, Mirza)
She praised his book and he embraced her from gratitude rather than lust, but she didn’t let go. Neither did he. She kissed his cheek, his earlobe. For months they’d run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed. She sat on the desk, between the columns of read and unread manuscript, and pulled him toward her by his index fingers.
I agree with the Washington Post review of the book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra “is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.”