A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I get most of my books from the local library. Generally, I plow through a book in a few days, write a review, drop the book off and start again. Even when I really enjoy a book, I’m still more excited to move on to the next.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is one of those magical few exceptions. I finished it a week ago and can’t get it out of my head. I’m probably going to buy my own copy so I can read it whenever I want.

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn’t slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. ‘Havaa, we should go,’ he said, but neither moved.”

Havaa’s father is merely the latest to be “disappeared” in her village during the often-ignored war between the Russian Army and Chechen guerrillas. The history of that war is long and confusing, and Marra doesn’t waste much time trying to explain it to us. What matters is the people. Havaa’s father-the chess player with no fingers. Akhmed-the failed doctor. Khassam-the scholar. Ramzan-the village rat (and surprisingly, the most heartbreaking character in the book).

Soon after the Russians torch the house, Akhmed realizes it wasn’t just his friend they were looking for-they want Havaa too, and they won’t stop until they find her. He wants to find somewhere safe to hide her-except, of course, there’s nowhere safe. He does the best he can, delivering her to a war-ravaged hospital, run by an ethnic Russian named Sonja.

After so many months of amputating mine-shattered legs, Sonja is barely hanging on, running on little sleep and amphetamines. She’s the only doctor left, running a hospital that should be staffed with 500. She treats her patient’s pain with heroin instead of morphine because it’s easier to buy on the black market. She knows that in a pinch, dental floss can be used to stitch bullet holes. The only think that can jerk her out of her robotic state, is the thought of her missing sister Natasha. She reluctantly agrees to let Havaa stay at the hospital as long as Akhmed works there too.

That’s just a very basic overview of the novel. Constellation jumps around in time, between the mid-90s and 2004, focusing mostly on Havaa, Sonja and Akhmed. I can’t remember the last time I read something so satisfying. It was beautifully written, with one sentence about a man looking for his missing brother stretching on for pages, jumping between past and future. In general, the book plays around with time, giving the readers a perspective the characters will never have. Havaa will never know what exactly happened to her father. But we do. Sonja will always have lie awake in her bed, wondering what happened to Natasha. But we know. I don’t like to raise people’s expectations, but this book is a must read.

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