A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

Image courtesy of Random House.

I have a soft spot for deeply-researched novels about places I have never been and subjects I have had little opportunity to consider, and Anthony Marra’s impressive first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (recently long-listed for the National Book Award), handily fits that bill. Without a hint of didacticism or soapboxing, Marra’s novel displays the horrors and traumas of the series of wars that have wracked Chechnya over the last century, all while bringing into sharp relief the human elements of political strife: the stories of those who are left behind, those who sacrifice, those who protect — and those who betray.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, 2013) begins with a disappearance. When Akhmed, the sole, poorly trained doctor in a small Chechen village, discovers that his neighbor has been taken by the Feds and his neighbor’s daughter, Havaa, has escaped, he struggles to find a way to keep her safe. The answer lies with Sonja, the reluctant, overworked head of surgery in a nearby hospital. Each character Marra introduces carries the ghost of another — for Sonja, it is her sister, for whom she returned to Chechnya from a promising British medical career; for Havaa, it is her father, presumed dead; for Akhmed, his invalid wife and old friends turned potential enemies — and each ghost falls into place like a puzzle piece, each influencing the other characters in unforeseen ways.

Marra most effectively draws these connections by revisiting stories and details from numerous, surprising angles. In the first chapter the reader learns that “after forty-one of the villagers had disappeared in a single day, Akhmed had drawn their forty-one portraits on forty-one plywood boards, weatherproofed them, and hung them throughout the village.” As the novel progresses, these events are told and retold through Sonja’s eyes and those of Akhmed’s neighbors, and the portraits are reexamined and their subjects recalled by Havaa and by passing refugees.

Disappearances, and the stories told to fill the resultant gaps, drive this novel forward. When Akhmed tries to explain to Havaa that once the woods and fields surrounding their village were full of wildlife and livestock, she asks, “Where did the Feds take them?” Anything gone must, logically, have been spirited away by the government.

Marra implants these disappearances into the very setting of the novel, as well. One room of Sonja’s hospital serves as a memorial of sorts, containing a mural of the city before it was bombed: “linden and poplar trees, rusted streetlamps, drooping electrical lines, shingled roofs, a skyline of television antennae, clotheslines curved by wet laundry, smoke ribbons unwinding from tailpipes, the sidewalks and cigarette kiosks and everything [the artist] could remember,” all gone by the time Havaa arrives at the hospital. In these quiet brushstrokes, Marra illuminates the beauty of the pre-war city and the destruction wrought by decades of conflict.

On occasion, Marra frustratingly stops the narrative’s forward momentum for a glimpse into a minor character’s thoughts or to spend a page in endless questions: “When had you last lived a day with the starting bell of your alarm clock? With breakfast djepelgesh? With news from Moscow and New York and Beijing beamed on the back of television waves? With the heat of that first cigarette in your throat and the Route 7 bus turning the corner, unfailingly three minutes behind schedule, just like you?” But each of these moments compresses a multiplicity of lifetimes and experiences into a single, lyrical expression, and what’s more, they remind the reader that here, too, despite — or perhaps because of — all this adversity, it is easy to get lost in the details.

Also recommended this month: Mountains of the Moon, by I. J. Kay

Article by Elizabeth Weinberg


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