Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Life and Death in Chechnya

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This beautiful and haunting novel is one of my favorite books of 2013. It takes place in post-war Chechnya, but don't be alarmed if you don't know much about the Chechen conflict with Russia — the rich storytelling and the gorgeous prose will draw you in, and by the end of the book you could captivate an audience with these wartime stories. 

But first, you must meet Havaa, a precocious little girl whose father was just taken by federal forces, probably never to be seen again. Havaa ran into the woods to hide, which is why the soldiers didn't find her. The girl's mother is dead and she has no one else. A neighbor, Akhmed, helps Havaa escape to a nearby town and convinces a doctor, Sonja, to look after her. Soon our cast of characters will expand and we will meet Akhmed's wife, Havaa's father, Sonja's sister, and other residents in the village of Eldar, each of them with a story to tell.

One of my favorite characters was Sonja, a tough doctor who left Chechnya to attend medical school in London, but she returned to her war-torn country to try and help her sister, Natasha, who later disappeared: 

"Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha's sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared. She walked alone down the school corridors, head sternly bent toward the stack of books in her arms ... Sonja had more academic journal subscriptions than friends. She could explain advanced calculus to her fifth-form algebra teacher but couldn't tell a joke to a boy at lunch. Even in the summer months, she had the complexion of someone who spent too much time in a cellar. Everyone knew Sonja was destined for great things, but no one knew what to do with her until then."

Another character I loved was Akhmed, a man who studied to be a doctor but who would rather have been an artist. He jokes that he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but he still manages to help his patients and their families, sometimes by drawing portraits of those who have been killed or taken by the feds.

Anthony Marra's writing is beautiful, with stunning sentences that made me pause and reread them. If I hadn't been reading a library book I would have underlined innumerable paragraphs. (The page-long sentence on p. 139 was so emotional and breathtaking that I actually gasped.) Each chapter opens with a timeline, pinpointing a year between 1994 and 2004, and the flashbacks illuminate what happened to our characters during the war. While the chapter focuses on one character's perspective, the stories ebb and flow together like overlapping melodies. 

This is a novel whose plotting and gracefulness I admired so much that as soon as I had finished it, I immediately wanted to start over and read it again. What details! What connections! This is the kind of novel I love to read -- one that is complex and meaningful and full of humanity and life and I wish I could give a copy to every bookish friend I know. Ann Patchett, who is one of my favorite writers, told The New York Times that this was her favorite book she's read this year. Agreed.

Note: If you're wondering what the title means, it is taken from a definition in a medical dictionary: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena -- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

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