“Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” (184)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2014) by Anthony Marra follows a number of characters living in a small, mountain village of Chechnya from 1994 through 2004. The story jumps around between characters and time, sometimes even up to the 1940’s to show an older character’s earlier life. Although it’s not difficult to follow, the stories intertwine in unexpected ways, and the true struggle and tragedy of war on innocent bystanders is explored in depth.
This is a powerful, well-written story that is hard to forget, and greatly increased my understanding of some of the history of Chechnya. Sonja is an overworked surgeon and one of three employees left at the mostly abandoned hospital when Havaa is brought to her from a nearby village. Havaa is a young girl whose father has just been dragged off for questioning. They are looking for her, too, a six year-old girl, and Havaa’s neighbor hopes she will be safe at the hospital.
Beginning this book, I thought it would focus on the growing relationship between Havaa and Sonja as she took over the mothering of the poor child. The focus was actually much larger than that. Sonja and her missing sister, Natasha, have a compelling relationship, and Natasha struggles with her own demons throughout the book. Havaa’s father and village friends also play a large role in this book, especially the life of the town informer, Ramzan, and his father.
“In another life Ramzan’s weaknesses would have manifested no tragedy greater than a cheated chess victory.” (127)
“You are mine. I recognize you. We twist our souls around each other’s miseries. It is that which makes us family.” (292)
The two things that struck me most about this book was the unending horror of war and what all the citizens had to deal with from both rebel and Russian forces. All they were trying to do was survive, but their lives were unbelievable difficult. And just when they started rebuilding and healing from the first war, it started all over again. And some of the characters couldn’t make it through a second time. It was heartbreaking and difficult to read without being melodramatic. The war was a large part of the story, but it was all viewed through the characters’ lives, making it more relatable and understandable.
“They put a shame inside you that goes in like a bridge with no end, the humiliation, the fucking humiliation of knowing that you are not a human being but a bundle of screaming nerve endings, that the torture goes on even when the physical hurt quiets.” (326)
The second thing that struck me was the realism of the characters. No one was perfect and each had their own motivation and their own struggles. These unique, real, and sometimes funny characters, linked with the wider view of the general, negative effects of war, made for an intriguing and unforgettable book.
If I had any criticism of this book, it would be that it is almost too ambitious and sometimes feels too literary. I especially noticed the plethora of similes and metaphors in the beginning of the book. Some of these were remarkably descriptive and poetic, but others just reminded me that I was reading literature. In addition, Marra tries to expand the reach of the war with an omniscient narrator. In some ways, this works remarkably well: minor characters who would have been easily dismissed as another unknown victim of war are turned into whole people. The reader learns that the anonymous man, one of hundreds who gets his leg amputated at the hospital, survives the war, and goes on to be an architect, rebuilding the ravaged city. On the other hand, again, this trick did separate me from the main characters’ struggles. Despite these very small concerns, this was a very impressive book.
“In the world beyond were two thousand and eighteen souls who had slept in that room, and remembered that room, and would harbor it in their thoughts for no fewer than ninety-nine years, when a little girl that Havaa had once watched sleep, the last living of the two thousand, closed her eyes for the last time.” (335)