A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published in 2013
Genre: Novel, war, literature about Chechnya
“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.”
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, describes the tragic lives of displaced peoples in the aftermath of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Featuring a cast of characters connected by seemingly inconsequential coincidences, the novel explores the notions of family, loyalty, and shared humanity. Through the troubled, war-torn history of a nation, lives are woven together by the decisions of a few while the fleeting and beautiful aspects of life find common ground.
Much of the book takes place in the Chechnya of 2004, following the abduction of a man named Dokka. His eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, is taken by their neighbor, Akhmed, to a nearby hospital for sanctuary after he learns she is also wanted by the Feds. Akhmed is an incompetent doctor who begins helping at the hospital. While in medical school, he skipped his classes to study art, which led him to drawing portraits for refugees of lost family members. Sonja, the only doctor in nearby hospital, is looking for her younger sister, Natasha, who disappeared some time ago. She is terse, pragmatic, and has been blunted by the war and wounds she has dressed during its occupation of her life. She returned to Chechnya to find her sister and gave up her both engagement and future at medical school.
Two of the most interesting characters in the novel are Natasha and Ramzan. Natasha tries to leave Chechnya and is taken as a sex worker in Europe; she undergoes years of drug addiction and trauma before returning to Chechnya to find her sister. Ramzan was supply runner turned informer in the village. After being captured, tortured, and castrated for refusing to give away his compatriots, he decides he would rather inform than hold his tongue after being ostracized by his fellow villagers in the aftermath of the first time. His vengeful attitude is the reason a dozen of his fellow villagers, including Dokka, are taken. His father, Khassian, struggles with the decisions Ramzan has made in order to keep their electricity, food rations, and insulin.
This is a story about families; those we are born into and those we create. None of the relationships in the book are simple, or surface level ties between people. As in real life, each relationship is complicated by the internal issues of those within them, and the interactions of neighbors, sisters, father and son, and strangers all come into focus through the course of the novel.
Marra injects little afterwards into both major and minor characters that follows a formula of “in x years, they would do y”, which adds a sense of closure in an otherwise nonlinear and uncertain story. There are also short histories of objects that bring about connections between the different characters. For example, Havaa collects souvenirs from the refugees that stayed with her family and one she has, a nutcracker, was given to her by Sonja’s sister, Natasha. This is one of the ways that characters are connected through seemingly coincidental, and oblique totems. The chapters travel between years; there is a timeline, from 1994 to 2004, at the beginning of each chapter with the years concerned in bold. Though the totality of its history encompasses decades, the main story takes place over matter of days while Akhmed is working at the hospital with Sonja.
The title of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena comes from the definition of life from one of Sonja’s textbooks. It is a fitting heading for the book’s focus on the interconnectedness of human existence. We often stumble upon small coincidences that smack of some higher power enjoying their time pulling the strings of us simple puppets into knotted webs, and this is put into an artistic scope through the course of the story. The characters are all believable, the setting bleak yet familiar, and the struggles universal as people try to survive the diverse situations in which they find themselves. There is a lot to unpack in this novel, and it was difficult to stop reading in order to take notes, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena not only describes the essence of life; it opens the petals of humanity and allows us to smell the bouquet of lives vastly different from our own.
Verdict: 4 brutal stories of survival of 5
Recommended for: Fans of well-written prose, those looking to learn more about how countries fared when the U.S.S.R. dissolved, people who like when small coincidences become significant, and people who like to broaden their perspectives.
Not recommended for: Those looking for a book with a happy ending, those averse to reading about others enduring torture, the characters named by Ramzan, children, or people looking for a light read.