Anthony Marra, the author of A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, is bound for greatness. It is almost impossible to fathom that this is his first novel. OMG! To think what he will bring us next.
Chechnya. It’s been in the news lately. You would have to have been living under a rock not to have heard the name of this country being tossed around like a pizza pie. Those brothers who set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon were from Chechnya, a place I had only remotely heard of until now. This amazing novel is set in Chechnya, and is told during two civil wars.
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, is told during a five day period in 2004. However, there is plenty of back story as Marra takes us on a roller-coaster ride through the past experiences of each of the main characters. Plus, he even gives us snippets of the characters’ future from time to time. Unique.
The story begins when 8 year-old Havaa flees her home as her father is being taken away by the Feds. She then watches as they set her home ablaze. Fortunately a neighbor comes looking for her and helps her to safety. The Feds are also looking for this child. No one is safe.
Akhmed is the man who has aided Havaa. He is a failed doctor who is much better suited to art than chemistry. But he is Havaa’s salvation. The place Akhmed takes the young girl is a bombed-out hospital, nearby. A couple of damaged people are still manning the ship. A burned-out woman doctor, who is still doggedly seeking her addicted sister, still holds the reins and operates and patches the wounded as best she can. And now there are three: three poor souls who are gathered together in the midst of war.
Then there is Ramzan who is not all that he appears to be. His father has disowned him. No one will speak to him. He has been rounded up, not once but twice, and taken to The Landfill. This might as well be called a death camp. It’s a hollowed out area that was supposed to be a dump. It’s filthy and treacherous. People are brought here to be broken before dying. And Ramzan made it through twice. His story will amaze and scare you to death. Harrowing is not too harsh a word. The Landfill is a character unto itself.
The characters in this novel are all simple folk. There are no heroes. Just everyday people. They are thrown together through the winds of war. War not once but twice. First the Russians took over and basically erased Chechnya. Then they decided to repopulate. And then they began eradicating once more. This is modern day. This is not the Jewish Holocaust. But this is as bad, maybe worse. It’s hard to read. But read it you must. All people need to know what is happening here. History can and does repeat itself.
While Sonja is sewing patients up with dental floss, Dokka, Havaa’s father, is losing all ten of his fingers at The Landfill. When Natasha is prostituting herself in Italy, her sister, Sonja, is making deals with the devil to get supplies for the hospital. And while Havaa is hiding at the burned-out hospital, we are hearing the back story of her mother.
What is up with the title? I bookmarked this passage. Comes from a 2,644 page book one of the characters was writing.
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena——organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
You may have already guessed that there is no happy ending. You may ask yourself, “why read this novel?” Because it’s one of the best-written novels of this year, and maybe years to come. It is quite simply an amazing story of life and mankind. It’s already winning awards and gaining attention. Keep your eye on this one.
My review copy came from the very generous people at Hogarth Publishing. Guys, I can’t thank you enough!