Although the Olympic Games in Russia presented an image of physical prowess among pristine hills and beautiful venues, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a stark reminder of the turmoil and oppression in that part of the world. Marra’s novel is set in war torn Chechnya, but present day Kiev is not that far away. And Putin’s name first appears on page 141.
After eight year old year old Havaa sees her father killed by Russian soldiers and her house burned down, her neighbor, Akhmed, rescues her and hides her in an abandoned hospital with the help of a weary but determined Sonja Rabina, the only doctor remaining in the rundown building. Taking advantage of Akhmed’s desperation and that he has completed medical school, Sonja promises to keep the child hidden as long as Akhmed (“the worst Doctor in Chechnya”) returns everyday from ministering to his bed ridden wife, to work at the hospital. Havaa’s life is still in danger, and the resident traitor, Ramzan, who lives and thrives in the neighborhood, threatens to find her and turn her into the Russian authorities.
Although the story runs through five days, Marra inserts flashbacks in the characters’ lives – before the first war, between the two wars – and conveniently identifies the year at the beginning of chapters. By creating a timeline measuring from 1994 to 2004, Marra emphasizes the horror of how recent this history is. The characters – their dreams and personal sacrifice – are all affected by the realities of war and deprivation, making the action personal. Lives mysteriously intersect, and the ending is both devastating and promising.
At times, the descriptions of white slavery and brutal torture are graphic and hard to bear, but Marra tempers the horror with moments of humor and compassion, using art as the conduit for understanding and memory. I read through this engaging book quickly, hoping for some redemption for Havaa – it came, but at a price.