A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
(Hogarth, Hardcover, 9780770436407, May 2013, 400pp.)
The Short of It:
A haunting glimpse of war, as seen through the eyes of those affected.
The Rest of It:
I know little about the War in Chechnya. That’s the first thing I’ll tell you as I attempt to review a book that pushed me away as much as it pulled me in. The second thing I’ll admit is that I’ve never read a book quite like this one. Marra’s handling of the subject is both delicate and brutal. A combination that I was not expecting.
The story follows a handful of characters as they experience war between the years of 1994-2004. Havaa, a young girl who ran from her home as the Russians took her father away. Akhmed, the neighbor next door who lives with his ill, bedridden wife, Ula. Sonja, a brilliant surgeon, trying to keep a hospital open with just two full time staff to run it. Natasha, Sonja’s sister, addicted to heroin and nowhere to be found. Khassan, an old man who lives across from Havaa and is the father to Ramzan, a young man who has been enlisted by the Russians as an informer. Dokka, Havaa’s father, who gives refugees a bed to sleep in as they make their way to the camps.
The character list is short, but the complexities of each character make this a very rich story, filled with moments that will haunt your memories for days. The hospital serves as a gateway to the other side. Many come for help, but some never leave given their injuries or the lack of supplies available to Sonja. She makes do with dental floss for sutures, heroin instead of morphine and when Akhmed brings the young girl to her and asks her to provide a place for her to sleep, Sonja is not ready to care for a child. Akhmed’s only saving grace? The mediocre medical experience he holds. Help is what she desperately needs so she takes what she can get and agrees to take the girl in.
The pace of the story falters a bit as Marra takes us back and forth through time. At times I zipped through the pages and at other times, I had to push myself to get through a chapter. It wasn’t until the final third of the book that I found myself unable to put the book down. The fate of these characters and how Marra walks us down each of their paths was riveting and heartbreaking.
It’s beautifully written and the complexities of war are displayed in acts both large and small. The amputation of a limb, a young girl’s collection of items left behind by refugees, feeding a band of loyal dogs. This is one of those books that seeps into you slowly but it’s a story that you will never forget.
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This giveaway is for one copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and is open to the US and Canada. A winner will be chosen randomly by me. The book will come directly from the publisher. Only one entry per person. Giveaway closes on June 7, 2013 (pacific). I will contact the winner for his/her mailing address.