Anthony Marra’s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is so full of twists that it’s a difficult story to pin down. How many other novelists have written a novel that is about wartime Chechnya, jumps through twenty years of time, and features seven or eight main characters? Not too many that I have seen. Marra’s strange blend of omniscient storytelling and chronological looseness plays with a beautiful writing style and makes A Constellation of Vital Phenomena one of the best books I have read this year.
Let’s start with the setting. Marra has managed to create a very evocative picture both of present-day and past Chechnya. Having lived both in Central Asia and Russia, I can affirm that Marra, an American, has captured the region exceptionally. Chechnya is woven through with threads of both hope and despair, and they are balanced perfectly as we walk throughout the book. Not only that, but Marra’s novel takes us from the 1980’s through to the 2000’s, and all steps of this are accurate and distinct from one another.
Constellation follows the story of one small loosely-connected group of people. A village doctor, Ahmad; his best friend’s daughter, Havaa; the doctor, Sonya, whose sister delivered Havaa; Havaa’s father, and Ahmad’s best friend, Dokka; the childhood friend of both Dokka and Ahmad, Ramzan, who informs for the Russian government. These weary faces are the backbone of Marra’s novel. He is a master at slowly revealing more and more information about each of them, pulling away the curtain and showing us how all of these people fit together into one group.
Havaa, though, is really the center of all of this. After Dokka is taken away by the Russians, Ahmad knows that they will be back for his daughter: the government shows no mercy as it ‘disappears’ Chechen citizens. This sets him off on a desperate journey to Grozny, where he once heard of a doctor who could close wounds with dental floss. This doctor, Natasha, is the only one who can keep Havaa safe.
Without spoiling the plot itself, all I can say is that Havaa is the lynchpin upon which this whole novel turns. Not for nothing does her name mean ‘life-giving’ in Arabic. This Chechen name — the giver of life — is the core of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
It’s difficult to understate the importance of Marra’s novel. This is a story of love and war for the ages, and, without exaggeration, I would place my bets on it entering the canon of classics. Few other novelists have tried to penetrate the difficult regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and fewer still have done it successfully. Despite a book that shows the gutted remains of Chechnya, Phenomena also reveals incredible hope in the same paragraph.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is not for the faint of heart. It’s full of murder, sex, hopelessness, cursing, and fate. But at the same time, the pain and suffering is worth it. Marra has shined a spotlight on a few small lives tucked away in a mountain village, and the feat is worth watching. We need more books like this one, and I will be watching Marra with intense interest going forward. He has proven himself very adept at shining a light on life, that constellation of vital phenomena.
Published on 14 October, 2016. Last updated on