Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

This book stands for one of the best things about my job, when among the good and the bad you come across something truly gem-like. The book isn’t out yet but I highly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for it. Click here for the author’s blog and more info about his work. Below is the ‘official’ blurb and then my take on the book.

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya, where Sunni Muslim separatists are waging a desperate campaign against Russian forces responsible for the death or “disappearance” of hundreds of thousands of Chechen loyalists. Staffed only by a tough-minded doctor who has returned from England in search of her missing sister, the hospital becomes a refuge for an orphaned girl and the neighbor who rescues her.In the final days of December 2004 in the village of Eldár, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces in the middle of night. Fearing for her life, their neighbor Akhmed – a failed physician – flees with her to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja Ivanova Stretsy, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees.  Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonya reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate. The plot hinges on two surprising elements: a Russian pistol and a souvenir from Buckingham Palace.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beautifully written. Marra deals with horrific scenes of torture and humiliation with a delicate poignancy that doesn’t detract from the horror but rather clarifies and intensifies it. Even the scene where Khassan holds a knife to his sleeping son’s throat is shot through with so much love that the reader feels every agony of Khassan’s dilemma as if it were their own. Marra offers the reader no easy allegiances, and his characters fail each other time and again. But they also make incredible sacrifices for one another, and ultimately his vision is a redemptive one.

His plot is well-crafted, slowly revealing the connections existing between the characters that had been there all along almost without their knowledge. He does a good job of balancing between how much the reader versus the characters know, so that though the reader is usually one step ahead they are also kept in anticipation of the final revelation. Another success of the book is Marra’s tendency to slide into mini-histories and mini-futures of incidental characters. He will suddenly digress away from dialogue or plot to remark that it has been ‘3 years, 2 months since x did y,’ or that in ’30 years time x would return to this spot with her children.’ This locates the novel in the middle of a long string of events and circumstances, choices and coincidences (a constellation of vital phenomena perhaps) that make up the collective story of the Chechen people. This technique also highlights the act of storytelling and self-narrativizing that all the characters do within the novel, as they attempt to try and find a way to deal with their reality.

While Marra’s plot effortlessly weaves together diverse characters, backstories, locations and even objects, the real wonder of the book is his writing.  His use of language is skillful, sharply-honed and a pleasure to read. He manages to strike the right balance between incredibly haunting language and the exigencies of keeping the plot moving. His imagery is by turns moving and beautiful – ‘his lips were two slats of sunlight on her forehead’ – absurdly comic, or horrific – ‘two spoonfuls were missing from his face’ – but always innovative and enjoyable. He describes family relationships, societal relationships and the bonds between friends very realistically, and never allows himself or the reader to sympathize too easily with any character.  The book establishes a good pace and then maintains it, and the characters are engaging and gripping enough that even their inner reflections make for compelling reading.

Though I’m not one for recommending a book because it’s about a subject you ‘really ought to know more about,’ the fact that Marra’s novel so effectively portrays the Chechen experience is yet another compelling reason to read this book. An all round winner.

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