I love a well-told story which is one of the reasons that I tend to read much more fiction than non-fiction. Non-fiction works seem to fall into several categories – books that read like my high school textbooks or graduate research papers – or books that spout on and on about someone’s personal opinion hoping to sell books on the wave of current events. Occasionally there are wonderful non-fiction books that tell a story and capture the imagination while educating the reader, but to assume that a book has to be non-fiction for the reader to learn is ludicrous. Fiction books can educate and inspire readers to learn more about a subject. While reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I eagerly went online to find images of the places and art and architecture discussed in the novel and I learned some things. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena taught me much about the realities of living in Chechnya from 1994-2004 and I was further educated about the history of the region by the research the novel inspired. Fiction can educate as well as it can entertain and inspire, it is not just fluff, and there is certainly no fluff to be found in Anthony Marra’s debut novel.
“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was the latest book in my Indiespensables subscription and was an inspired choice. The storyline floats around between 1994 and 2004 in war-torn Chechnya following a central group of characters and the intersections of their lives. When the book opens it is 2004 and Havaa, an eight-year old girl, hides in the forest and watches while Russian soldiers take away her father, Dokka, and burn her home. There are others watching as well – Khassan, and elderly neighbor and historian who fears that his son, Ramzan, is the informant who gave Dokka’s name to the Russians and Akhmed, their neighbor and friend, a portraitist and the worst doctor in Chechnya. Akhmed leaves his invalid wife, Ula, to gather Havaa and take her to the rundown hospital which is being run by Sonja, an ethnic Russian, with the hope that she will take the girl in and ensure her safety. Sonja has no interest in helping Akhmed and Havaa, she is only interested in finding Natasha, her missing sister. Eventually, she agrees and in return for Havaa’s refuge Akhmed agrees to work at the understaffed hospital. The following five days will change the lives of everyone involved as the stories of their lives, and how they have intersected and connected, will unfold.
This is a beautiful novel, but also a difficult one. Chechnya during this time is not a place where anyone should be and the book does not shy away from the harsh realities and difficult questions. What defines loyalty and family and morality? Who decides right and wrong? What does existing in these circumstances do to a person, physically and emotionally? At what point does someone break? Mutilation, torture, rape, drug abuse, illness, hunger, adultery, betrayal, and murder are all part of the stark landscape. But there is also beauty; there is love and friendship, kindness and mercy, forgiveness and hope. This book is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one. It is both horrible and wonderful.
“There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.”
Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra
Publication: Hogarth, May 2013