This is a superb book. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” has a main storyline: In a tiny village in Chechnya in 2004, Akhmed, an incompetent doctor, takes his neighbor Dokka’s daughter, Havaa, in search of safety after her father has been disappeared and their house burned down. They walk to the hospital, where a tough woman named Sonja is the head surgeon–and one one of two employees. Sonja has enough to worry about without taking on the care of an 8-year old girl, and when she’s not amputating limbs, she’s searching for her missing sister Natasha, but Akhmed is persistent. Meanwhile, Akhmed’s neighbors, Khassan and Ramzan, are also concerned for Akhmed and the girl and her whereabouts, although for different reasons.
This story takes place over five days in 2004. But these five days are the framework only, and Marra moves deftly between past, present, and future, seamlessly gliding between each character’s history, slowly revealing their relationships and histories and motivations. Marra uses his omniscient narrator’s voice in just the right places, often giving glimpses into the past or future of even peripheral character’s lives, as if to say every human in this story is important. The overlapping histories and timeline jumps are woven together subtly, without sacrificing character development or prose, and it’s never confusing–which is really exceptional, and this is one of the few books that I’ve read recently that has done this so satisfyingly.
The pacing is wonderful, and there are sentences so lyrical I re-read them slowly just to savor them–in particular there’s a long sentence on page 139 that just took my breath away. The characters are tough, frail, selfish, generous, clever, and idiotic. The descriptions of Chechnya, both the landscape and the effects that wars had on her citizens, are beautiful and horrible. It’s a story that contains both the atrocities of war and the whimsy of a child, without giving in to either. This is definitely one of my favorite books of the year.