A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Posted August 2, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction / 5 Comments

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraTitle: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Goodreads)
Author: Anthony Marra
Published: Hogarth, 2013
Pages: 416
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

In a small village in Chechnya, an eight year old Havaa watches as her father is abducted by Russian soldiers. Their neighbour, Akhmed was also watch and takes Havaa as he knows he will be the only person that might be able to help her. They seek shelter at a bombed-out hospital, where they meet Sonja, a tough and strong minded doctor who has no desire to risk it. All three people’s worlds are turned upside down in such a short period of time. Slowly intricate patterns are revealed that bind these three companions together and ultimately seals their fate.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place mainly in 1994; not too long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) and the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split (1992). Now The Chechen Republic was fighting for their independence. In the First Chechen War the Russian Federation tried to seize control only to be fought off by the locals. It wasn’t till 1996 did Boris Yeltsin’s government declare a ceasefire and eventually a peace treaty was signed. During this war it was estimated that 5,500 Russian soldiers died, between 3,500 and 7,500 Chechen militants, but the real loss was on the civilians, with between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths, around 200,000 injured and 500,000 displaced by the conflict. I wish I could tell you that we are the end of conflict with Chechnya but in 1999 the Second Chechen War was launched and the Russian Federation eventually seized control in 2009.

Now that we have an idea of what was happening in the country at the time, we get an idea of the danger that faces the three main characters. This isn’t necessarily a book about war, or the politics behind it (which basically comes down to oil) but rather the connections that link Havaa, Akhmed and Sonja together. The hardships each of them face only serves to build this beautiful story and flush out the character development. A glimpse of three different people struggling to survive this war torn land and debut author Anthony Marra managed to make this novel both compelling and emotional.

All three characters are so different you get so many perspectives within A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that will leave you pondering the novel well after you put it down. For me, I thought of Akhmed as a traditional Chechen Muslim, caught up with the past and tradition. While Sonja is the strong minded woman trying to smash through the glass ceiling, then you have Havaa an intelligent young girl that knows nothing else apart from war. You also have other characters that look at other ways the war effects the people, from abduction, smuggling, sex trafficking, amputation, punishment, torture and the list goes one. For a novel so focused on the character development and relationship of three characters, it’s impressive how it manages to deal with so many other issues.

I’ve always had a keen interest on Russian literature, plus my fascination with the motherland; so I knew I had to read this book. The collapse of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic is an interesting topic and the instability that ensued afterwards makes for a great backdrop. I will admit I didn’t know much about Chechen history so I had to bone up a little, unable to break a bad habit I was on the Wikipedia page for Chechnya just to get more information. I feel stupid for this but I didn’t realise the majority of Chechnya were Muslims; for some reason I thought they would have been Russian Orthodox. With the help of understanding the geographical location (which helped make more sense of their Islamic influences) as well as history, I really connected with this novel.

It wasn’t just understanding Chechnya or the character development I loved about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it was also exquisitely written. I was sucked in by the imagery and the beauty of the prose; I was surprised this was Anthony Marra’s first novel. I would have thought he had been doing this so well , the writing was wonderful and the whole novel was masterfully executed. I hope he writes a new novel soon because I know I’m eagerly waiting to see what he does next.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is sure to be one of those books that make my ‘Best of 2013’ list, I was very impressed with everything about it. For an American writer, his grasp on Chechnya seems authentic. I don’t know much about his life so I can’t judge, he might have spent some time in the country or has friends or family from there; I do know he wrote a prize winning short story called Chechnya, but that looks like the basis of this novel (based around Sonja, the hospital and her sister). Go out and pick up a copy of this novel, it is well worth reading.

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