“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is a brilliant debut novel by Anthony Marra. It is a story about regular people trying to survive and get on with their lives in war-torn Chechnya. The horror and deprivation that the people experience is unimaginable for most of us; yet they keep plodding forward, making the best of what they do have.
The story mainly revolves around Akhmed, a failed doctor from a small town and Sonja a successful doctor basically running a partially destroyed hospital in Grozny. When Akhmed’s neighbor, Dokka, is ‘disappeared’ he takes the now orphaned eight-year-old Havaa to Sonja in Grozny to keep her safe from the Feds who are looking for her. Akhmed had heard of Sonja from a rebel commander who had passed through their town. Sonja’s sister, Natasha, had also disappeared, but of her own volition and she constantly seeks word of her sister. While Akhmed is in Grozny his neighbor Khassan, a frustrated author and father to the town informer, looks in on Akhmed’s bedridden wife.
As the story unfolds in what seems like no particular order we learn what brings each of the characters to the place they are now at. Eventually the “constellation” that connects them all will be revealed. The writing is prose like and weaves back and forth in time and view-point so that the reader slowly uncovers the connections and the characters become painfully real in all their flaws and shortcomings.
I highly recommend this book with the caveat that it is not for the faint of heart. There are some very vivid scenes of death and dismemberment in it. I’ll be looking forward to Marra’s next effort.