Book reviews

I started A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra knowing so little about Chechnya, the country where the story was set, that I couldn’t have pinpointed the country’s location on a map. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know what continent Chechnya was part of. I vaguely recalled hearing the name on the television news and associated the country with bearded-guerillas armed with military-grade weapons and buildings so badly damaged by bombs that they need to be demolished, but like many people I ignore news stories that I don’t want to see or think about.

Several chapters into this book I realised that a whole new world had been opened up to me. I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about Chechnya and the country’s history, and learned of ferocious wars, genocide and disappearances of people of recent times. Very recent. I amended my search to ‘images’ and came up with photos of the country’s president, a jovial-looking bloke, then skimmed through an article where he said that he considered his wife (presumably his first wife since he has several) to be his property.

I exited the article and scrolled down further, hoping to see were photos of the countryside, the cities, the parks and the people but instead came across photos of many, many dead bodies lying in trenches. Never in a million years did I expect to see photos of the dead, so many photos of so many people who were killed on the edges of these terrible trenches for the convenience of their killers. I can’t stress enough that these photos were taken in my times. Our times. What kind of world are we living in?

My horror was compounded by the events that have been taking place in Afghanistan while I was reading this book. This time, I did pay attention to the news. Again, I have to ask what kind of world are we living in?

Don’t answer that.

We’re all living in the same world, but some of us are luckier than others. I’m lucky to live in a country where I am valued. I have clean water to drink, enough food to eat and a roof over my head. I received an education, I like my job and have the satisfaction of knowing that I contribute to society in a meaningful way. In general, the people in my country celebrate each other’s differences at best and tolerate or ignore them at worst. My country has rules that are fair, most of us follow them and recognise they exist to keep all of us safe. Our laws are the same for everyone regardless of their differences of gender, religion, age, education level, or their background. I know how lucky I am.

However, back to my book review.

I found A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be a fascinating story. This was Anthony Marra’s first book who has since written several other well-received novels.

The main story was told over just a few days and featured a handful of characters linked to eight-year old Havaa, who were either as her family, neighbours or family friends from her village.

The very first sentence in this book described, in a very matter of fact way, the Feds burning down Havaa’s house and taking her father, Dokka.

Akhmed, a family friend and neighbour, found Havaa hiding and surreptitiously snuck her past various military checkpoints to a hospital in the nearby city of Volchansk, where he promised the doctor in charge that he would work for Havaa’s keep. Akhmed knew that if Havaa were to remain in the village she would soon be killed by the Feds in retaliation for a past event committed by others.

Akhmed was a doctor, but not a very good one. Prior to Akhmed’s arrival Sonja had been the last doctor remaining in the Volchansk hospital which had once employed hundreds of medical staff. Despite have little faith in Akhmed’s medical ability Sonja and the elderly nurse who assisted her agreed to Akhmed’s request out of necessity.

Due to extensive practice caused by people stepping on landmines, Sonja had become particularly skilled at performing amputations. I was partly horrified and partly amused reading about Akhmed carrying out his first amputation under Sonja’s instruction. ‘Amused’ may seem like a strange word to use, but Sonja made fun of Akhmed’s surprise to learn what colour a living person’s bone marrow was since he had only previously known marrow in the form of a cooked meat. In real life I probably would have passed out.

The story slid back and forwards over a ten year period from 1994 to 2004, between the first and second Chechen Wars. It told of Sonja and her relationship with her missing sister Natasha, Ahkmed and his friendships with Dokka and another of their neighbours, Ramzan, and of Ramzan’s father, Kassan. The friendship between the men had splintered after Ramzan became an informer on the people of their village after he and Dokka miraculously returned from the Landfill, a place where most detainees never returned from. The descriptions of the torture inflicted on almost all of the characters at one time or another was horrific, although to the characters themselves the torment was commonplace and they did not dwell on these events.

The history of Chechnya was also included in this story and it was complicated. Sonja and Natasha were ethnic Russians whose grandparents had been sent to Chechnya in Stalin’s time to populate the country. The remaining characters were Chechen Muslims and were considered to be less importance in their own country, but the references to the country’s history went back far beyond these characters and that of their grandparents. Chechnya doesn’t appear to have had much peace for at least 600 years.

The connections between the characters was woven together like delicate lace, with multiple strands connecting them and their stories.

In between telling the story of the main characters there were tiny little detours here and there into the lives of the minor characters. Some were precious memories while others were glimpses into the future. In their own way these little stories, almost asides, were souvenirs much like those that Havaa had collected from the refugees who stayed with her family as they passed through her village, leaving Chechnya on their way to somewhere else, somewhere safer, somewhere they could have a better life.

Despite the terrible times the characters were living in, there was plenty of humour in this novel, although much of it could be described as gallows humour. Ahkmed confused Ronald Reagan with Ronald McDonald as all American names sounded the same to him. A gangster was driven around and around his driveway in the backseat of his BMW by his driver since there were no intact roads left to drive on in the city. Deshi, the elderly nurse from the hospital had fallen in love twelve times previously and had hated oncologists ever since a love affair with a philandering one had left her heart-broken many years ago.

The constant personal losses suffered by the characters in this novel were heart-wrenching. Everyone carried their home address somewhere in their clothing in the hope that when they died their bones would be returned to their families (or whomever was left of them) and their homes (again, or what was left of them). Extraordinarily, those who didn’t die in violent circumstances would live to be an enormous age.

Anthony Marra’s writing was beautiful. I loved his story-telling style and felt connections with each of his characters without feeling as if I was wallowing in grief or terror or any of the other emotions they were feeling as they faced their terrible situations. The characters were sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly. During terrible events they were often resilient but at other times, minor issues devastated them. At all times they were human and I didn’t like to think too much about how I might have behaved if I had been in the situations they were in.

I would warn other readers that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena should be read when you have the time and energy to pay it full attention, because it isn’t a story that can be read lightly.

I’ll certainly read Marra’s other books.

Comments on: "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra" (14)

  1. I enjoyed your thoughtful review. I vaguely remembered this novel from its publication year, when it garnered a great deal of attention (NY Times Notable Book of the Year; best seller; rave reviews and so on). I’m ashamed to say I decided not to read it as it sounded too grim and was centered on a part of the world that I knew little about, except I was glad I didn’t live there (don’t mean to be too snide about this — my feeling is similar to yours in your review, when you noted how lucky you were to live in a relatively peaceful and orderly country).
    The review makes the novel sound quite compelling and really aroused my curiosity about Marra’s writing; so much so I did a quite search of his work. I still don’t think I’m quite ready for Constellation, but I do think I might try his short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, which looks pretty interesting.
    Your review’s mention of Chechnya’s bloody history jogged my memory a bit, so it was back to goggle to confirm that, yes, Count Leo Tolstoy saw military service there as a young officer back in the 19th century and garnered his first literary success with his writings about Russian atrocities . . . .

    • Thank you!
      I’m not surprised this novel received a lot of attention when it was published, considering the subject matter.
      The novel really was compelling and well worth the read, despite the uncomfortable feelings it brings up (for me, guilt about being so comparitively lucky about where I live, and guilt at ignoring other’s misfortunes).
      Tolstoy. That makes sense. He certainly would have had plenty of material in this part of the world to use. I must read something by him – I read Anna Karenina as a teenager but suspect I was far too young to have appreciated the book then.

  2. I’ve been watching in disgust as we abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban, so I can imagine how this story would have resonated reading it during that. All these wars around the edges of Europe are linked, and our involvement in them is rarely anything to be proud of sadly. I’ve only read one of Marra’s books – The Tsar of Love and Techno – and loved it. It’s a little lighter from the sounds of it, but still with many heart-wrenching moments. This one has been on my wishlist for far too long…

    • I agree. I’m so angry about what we’ve done (and haven’t done) in Afghanistan. We’ve let so many people down.
      I think you would appreciate Constellation and I would LOVE to read your review of it when you do get to it.
      I’ve been searching for Tsar for ages but haven’t been able to find it. I have a feeling I added it to my list after your review some years ago.

  3. Great review. I read this a few years ago and I too learned a lot about Chechnya while reading it and was reminded how fortunate my upbringing and current life have been.

  4. This sounds very powerful, Rose – all the more so reading as we watch in horror the events in Afghanistan. As you say, we are very fortunate. And this one has been added to the list.

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