Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fiction Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I’ve wanted to read Anthony Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, ever since its release garnered so much attention and rave reviews. I thought it sounded like the kind of book I’d want to discuss, so I was thrilled when it was my turn to suggest books to my neighborhood book group, and they chose this one. It was just as good as I expected, a moving novel filled with wonderful writing and unforgettable characters, about how life and love, hope and healing can survive even in the most horrific circumstances.

The book opens in 2004 in a small Chechnyan village, as a man named Akhmed holds the hand of his neighbor, a newly orphaned 8-year old girl named Havaa, and gently leads her down the street. Havaa’s home was burned to the ground the day before, her father was taken away by Feds (Russian soldiers), and all she has left is a blue suitcase. Akhmed knows that she is still in danger and the soldiers could return at any time, so the two of them walk miles through the snow from their remote village to a hospital in the nearest town. The hospital is the only tall building left in town that is still (mostly) standing, and it is manned entirely by one doctor and one nurse.

Sonja, the young surgeon at the hospital, is living in her own kind of hell, taking stimulant drugs to stay awake and coping with the never-ending stream of gun and landmine injuries by keeping herself emotionally apart from her patients. Sonja, like most people in Chechnya, is missing someone – her sister Natasha – and is desperate to find out what happened to her. Akhmed asks if Havaa can stay at the hospital, but Sonja is adamant that she couldn’t possibly stay there. They work out a deal: Akhmed, who is a doctor, will help out at the hospital each day if Havaa can sleep there at night.

With that, the main characters embark on their journey together. The part of the novel that takes place in the present covers only 5 days, with that meeting in the hospital on the first day. Chapters often move back and forth through time to explain the background and history of one character or another. In that way, the whole story slowly comes together, and often the reader finds that assumptions he made about a certain character are shattered once he understands how the character got to this point. The novel shows the complexities that make up a person and how you can’t judge someone based solely on his current actions without understanding what came before.

What I loved most about this novel is that it is about connections. It’s one of those stories where disparate characters who seem to have nothing in common at first turn out to be connected in subtle ways. I really enjoy novels like this – it’s such a joy to gradually discover those connections and find the hidden strings tying different people together. It almost feels like fate when two people whose paths crossed previously (and often unknowingly) meet again.

Out of the nine people at my book group last night, five of us rated this novel a 9 or 9.5 out of 10! I wasn’t the only one who felt so emotionally moved by the story and the writing. Interestingly, three others in the group only rated the novel a 5 and one person gave it a 7. Some people didn’t like the setting, during Chechnya’s second war, that included some horrific scenes of violence and torture. Some had trouble with the jumps in time (though the author does helpfully provide a year at the start of each chapter).

Everyone in our group agreed that Marra’s writing is beautiful and eloquent. Some group members had books filled with tabs because there were just so many passages that made you stop and read twice. Marra is a master of the metaphor – I have never read such original metaphors and similes. Here is one of my favorites:
“She wanted to hold foreign syllables like mints on her tongue until they dissolved into fluency.”

Everyone in our book group also agreed that we learned a lot about Chechnya and its history. Most of us couldn’t even find Chechnya on a map before reading this novel, and the details and history woven into the story were very enlightening and led us into quite a few discussions of current events. We all wondered why we didn’t know about the devastation in Chechnya just ten years ago.

Though the setting of the novel – during a destructive series of wars – is often horrifying, Marra counters those terrible scenes with a wonderful sense of humor. Havaa is often the source of the humor, as when she tries to teach the one-armed guard at the hospital how to juggle. She is still an eight-year old child, even in the midst of a war. I was going to include some quotes here that show the humor in the novel, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise of their discovery for you, as that is an integral part of the joy of reading this novel.

In case you couldn’t tell by now, I loved this novel. From its very first pages, I was pulled into the story and quickly came to care about the characters and their sometimes surprising connections with each other. I was engrossed in the story and captivated by the wonderful writing. Despite its setting, it’s a story about how life and love can survive anything, how two people can find healing and hope in each other, and how we are all interconnected. The characters felt so real and I was so emotionally moved that I cried (in a good way) as I read the last page. Then I wanted to flip back to page 1 and start all over.

379 pages, Hogarth

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