In war-torn Chechnya, Akhmed finds his neighbour's eight-year-old daughter Havaa hiding in the snowy woods after the Feds kidnapped her father and burned down their house. Knowing that the Feds will be looking for her and that it's unsafe for him to care for her, he takes her to the only place he can think of - the abandoned hospital where one doctor remains.
Sonja Andreyevana is barely keeping it together. As the only doctor in the hospital, she spends most of her time amputating limbs. When Akhmed arrives at the hospital with the young girl in tow, she protests that she cannot take her in. But when Akhmed, a trained doctor, offers to help at the hospital in exchange for the girls safety, she cannot refuse.
Over the course of five days, Sonja, Akhmed, and others will discover how their lives have intersected over the course of a decade permeated by war and its repercussions. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is an incredible novel that takes you inside a place that few of us outside of it know or understand. It puts faces to the news stories, to a people for whom war has become a way of life.
This is a sweeping novel, one that tells an incredible story while educating the reader on the history of a country most don't know much about. Marra does this through a variety of main characters, each with their own story and their own role in the war. While the main part of the book takes place over five days, its reach spans a decade, covering the first and second Chechen wars.
I could write about the various characters and the roles they play in the story but to me, the way Marra unfolds the story is one of the strongest points of the book and not to be ruined. It's slow, but it works. Discovering how all of the characters are connected in this book is a wonderful process. It's a difficult story to read, knowing the truth and tragedy behind it all. But Marra gets it all across in just the right way.
One of my favourite writing techniques used in the book is the way Marra gives glimpses into the future while still writing in the present. For example:
In Ingushetia he had an eleven-year-old daughter he didn't know about, who was waiting for him to call. In two and a half years he would hear her voice for the first time. (p. 318)
Setting your book in a war-torn country means it will primarily be one of despair and tragedy. It's not the type of book that you would expect readers to flock to. But this book is also one of beauty amidst the rubble, of love and family, of hope and of forgiveness. Anthony Marra has taken on an ambitious project and come out with a very important read.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are purely my own.