I'll get this out of the way at the start. I was teary-eyed at the end. I always love a book where the pace seems to pick up as the end nears; you don't want to finish, but cannot stop until you've reached the conclusion, no matter how much you don't want to. There is a sense of urgency that compels you forward, until the choice is no longer yours. And you're left to contemplate the memory of the events and the emotions they've stirred in you.
Such is the wonderful writing of Anthony Marra in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story covers citizens victimized by the two wars of the last 25 years in former Soviet republic, Chechnya. Every step of the way, Marra elicits profound empathy for each of his characters, all of whom are broken and deeply scarred. We have multiple protagonists, and Marra slowly unfurls the psyche of each of them - of how the wars have wounded them both physically and psychologically. He brings together Russian and Muslim Chechens whose lives intersect, conflict, and weave together in unexpected ways.
The book begins with Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who is hiding in the woods after her father, Dokka is murdered. Long time neighbor, Akhmed finds her and takes her to safety, at risk to his own life. They find safety in a battered hospital with only one doctor, Sonja, who reluctantly takes the girl in. Over a five day period, we get to know Sonja, Akhmed, and Havaa, among others; and through them, journey through their memories of pain and love; of war and exile; and of traitors and deceit.
Marra's telling of events seems so tangible and realistic. He spent time in in Chechnya and did extensive research to write this book, giving the reader a rare and authentic connection to a region we otherwise may hear little about. He deftly brings to us the anguish and brutality of war, along with the effects of mental and physical torture, whether self-inflicted, at the hands of Russian captors, or by human smugglers. Marra carefully brings each character alive with all their shortcomings and fears, poignantly delivering the desperation and longing in each of them. He infuses moments of lightness; whimsy as it naturally occurs, whether a defense mechanism or as irony in daily life lived in turmoil.
Some of the most beautiful moments are perhaps when narrating a letter written to Havaa about her father or other passages expressed in first person. Marra uses a poetic voice, so skillfully articulating the emotion of a father's subtly expressed, yet deep devotion to his daughter. Living under the dark cloud of war, occupation, and brutality heightens the senses, dulls sensitivities, and acutely alters human behaviors. We feel them - or as close to it as we can - through A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Vickie's rating: 4.5 stars