A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Such a tough book to review! I think it fair to say that I missed some of the symbolism. I did not miss the beautiful and vivid prose. The author is an amazing writer who uses words to paint a landscape so complete, I could not help but see the ruins of the cities in Chechnya and want to weep. The story itself is not all sad and the reader is left with hope by the end of the book yet, although the story is fiction, the reality of life in Chechnya is not.
There is a rich history of the country of Chechnya which is briefly touched upon. The story taking place for the reader, however, is a time covering the two most recent wars which I feel less than certain enough in their causes to explain them. One war was largely the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The other was a confused grab of power between the feds and resistance fighters who were largely Muslim thus many have misinterpreted that it is the extremists who are attempting a holy war. With my companion reading of Wikipedia, which I know is not the best source but it was what I chose, the second war is largely propaganda and the snatching of power. Best as I can tell, however, the Feds consist of the Russian soldiers who are actually hardened criminals and other soldier were were conscripted against their will.
The actual history of the country is important but not vital to understand the story. Jumping around in the timelines of the two wars which is a very short amount of time, the story unfolds as Sylvia is the sole medical doctor at a Chechnyan hospital Akhmed is the best friend of Dokka who has just disappeared. Havaa is Dokka's daughter and now Akhmed's responsibility to keep safe so he takes her to Sylvia who knows only by reputation. Sylvia is waiting for her sister, Natasha to return home. Ramad is an informer for the government, causing the death of 12 people, at last count. Kassan is his diabetic father who is lonely for conversation but nobody will talk to him because of his son's habits.
The book slowly but surely connects the characters to one another, even if only in passing, they each make an impression on at least one other character, changing or ending their lives. The brutality of the feds is horrific and something to be feared. There are characters who are indifferent to the consequences, knowing their conscience could not handle the alternative. Others who have turned off all political leanings and work only to survive. And then the truly innocent of them all.
It is a very strong and powerful book, carefully woven together as the characters lives intersect with one another, validating their lives and importance and changing hearts when the heart can be changed. An interesting writing quirk that I enjoyed immensely is the insertion of what will happen in 2.8 years in the future. Or in 57.3 years in the future. These comments are made off the cuff and are nearly missed as consequential but add immensely to the book.
For such a serious book, there is great humor in the scene where Havaa is directed to teach the one armed guard how to juggle. I admit that I laughed aloud.
The book is a worthwhile read. My three stars reflect my own personal feelings of the seriousness of the subject matter. It hurts to know what is happening in our world today. The writing is exquisite. The sociogram that you may need to write out in your head is complex but well worth drawing.