This was September’s book club pick, selected by an elderly gent who professed how much it engaged and moved him while he was hopped up on pain meds and laid up in bed after hip surgery. Given that commendation, plus the glowing reviews on the web, I was prepared to be starstruck.
Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in war-torn Chechnya, a portion of the Caucasus in Russia that is heavily Muslim and has struggled for independence over the last two decades. The book stretches from prior to the First Chechen War for Independence in the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s, at the official conclusion of the 2nd War, though there are plenty who would say it’s still continuing to this day through terrorist/guerrilla warfare.
The plot centers on a rural village, when eight-year-old Havaa sees her house burned down and her father abducted by Russian soldiers as no one in the village comes to his aid. Striken with guilt over his inaction, neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa alone in the woods with her little blue suitcase and drags her away to a nearby city to take sanctuary at the hospital that prickly native-Russian Sonja works at as the sole doctor. The three of them over the course of five days develop a deeper connection despite the hidden wounds from their past.
Also in the cast is historian Khassan, another villager who has spent years writing books on Chechen history and ignoring his son who has become an informer for the Russians, and who we find out was responsible for Havaa’s father’s kidnapping. Sonja had a sister Natasha, whom she practically raised and has now gone missing, while Akhmed cares for his bedridden, ailing wife who barely recognizes him. As we see, the Russians are not the only ones responsible for the absences in these characters lives, but the binding thread is that these characters all have an undercurrent of hope remaining and which they’ll find through each other.
The title comes from a Russian medical textbook read by Natasha in which “a constellation of vital phenomena” is the definition of life. I didn’t love the title because I thought it was poorly connected to the rest of the plot, but my fellow book clubbers pointed out to me that a series of seemingly unrelated events connect all the characters (the stars within the constellation) to each other because of their shared relationships and experiences. The word “vital” also connects to the hospital setting, to Sonja and Akhhmed’s medical backgrounds, and to the fine balance between life and death that the characters court every day.
As I’ve mentioned before, I studied international relations in college, and had luckily taken a semester-long course on the Caucasus. Without that to call upon, I would’ve been totally lost. In focusing so deeply on a character-driven drama, it’s hard to understand the place and time those characters exist. There was no real explanation of the conflict, just hints here and there about what had happened or was happening. Wikipedia became my friend as the timeline got muddled, though I appreciated that Marra included a physical timeline at the start of each chapter since the plot contained a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
I indicated “terrorist/guerrilla warfare” above, because throughout the timespan in the book, the characters clearly favor the ethnic Chechens over the Russians, who they perceive to be the cruel aggressors. The warlords and refugees are meant to be sympathized with, because their homeland and families are being destroyed and their liberties are being infringed on. Not that I’m endorsing terrorism, but another course I took in college on Just War Theory pointed out that the American War for Independence was construed as terrorism by the British, whereas nowadays we think of it as a glory-filled fight for freedom. Marra’s bias is apparent, but I presume he chose to express that viewpoint in order to make his readers think about the justifications on both sides of the conflict.
Marra’s writing style is beautiful and poetic, a jarring conclusion to the reality of the violence of a situation brimming with land mines and abductions. Unfortunately, it often becomes too verbose. One sentence stretched over multiple pages. Especially at the beginning, I think he could have cut down the verbage – what was meant to launch the text turned into a boring opening section, with the book not really picking up until the middle. If only he had cut some of the beginning and included a brief foreword on Chechen history, the book would’ve been much improved. I could easily see a reader overwhelmed by the language and unexplained history putting the book down and never picking it up again.
Which would be a pity, because it became a complex, thought- (and emotion-) provoking book towards the conclusion (and again, improved even more with discussion amongst book club members). I was disinterested in the beginning (2 Stars) and loved the ending (5 Stars), especially with the definitity of its conclusions following the characters into the future beyond the text, that I’d have to average it out to