“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” (p. 3) In a small village in Chechnya in the midst of a war, eight-year-old Havaa escapes from her home as Russian soldiers take her father, Dokka, away to be executed for his supposed crimes. Carrying a blue suitcase containing all her memories, she searches for her neighbor Akhmed. In an effort to save her, he takes her to a local hospital and enlists the help of Sonja, a brilliant but troubled surgeon.
Over the course of five days, Havaa, Akhmed and Sonja learn a great deal about one another. Havaa struggles with the reality that she now has no family left. Can she rely on Akhmed and Sonja to become her family? Akhmed uses his rudimentary medical training to help out at the hospital despite the fact that he has a bedridden wife at home with dementia. Sonja displays her compassion when she decides to shelter a young girl she does not know. She is a complex character who is searching for her enigmatic sister. How will these three brave characters survive the horrors of war?
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena catapults readers into an exceptionally violent reality: “A civilization without class, property, state or law.” (p. 38) Russian soldiers have taken over major areas of Chechnya in 2004. Anyone suspected of objecting to their occupation is immediately “taken away” and never seen again. Sonia’s sister and Havaa’s father are victims of this inhuman treatment. Although the setting of this novel is Chechnya, the echoes of this wanton violence exist in today’s headlines about wartime atrocities and the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The novel’s structure is a wonderful vehicle for telling an expansive story about the horrors of war. Although the novel takes place over the course of only five days, the background stories of various characters are also key elements of the plot. In order to give readers a sense of time, the author places a timeline from 1994 to 2004 at the beginning of each chapter indicating the year in which the action takes place. By the end of the novel, all of the disparate threads of the plot have been woven together in an incredible tapestry of the human cost of war and the powerful healing power of love.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is Anthony Marra’s amazing first novel. Marra received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He combines skillful prose with a masterful sense of time and place to create a remarkable group of characters. Their relationships, struggles and triumphs make this an unforgettable novel in which life is,
a constellation of vital phenomena – organization, irritability, movement growth, reproduction, adaptation.(p. 184)