Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

One of the great powers of fiction is to bring history alive. A good, well-written novel can teach the reader more than ten history books. And may access find readers who would never pick up a history book.

Like many in North America, I know very little about Chechnya. It’s history is long and complicated and even a slight knowledge of Soviet history in general comes in handy. The primary action of the novel takes place in 2004, spanning less than a week and beginning with the arrest of a fingerless man named Dokka. Dokka’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, is able to escape the Feds who hunt her and their neighbour, Akhmed, takes her to a nearby city, hoping that a doctor he once heard of will protect her. Sonja is a brilliant surgeon struggling to maintain the last hospital almost entirely alone, while constantly wondering what happened to her sister, Natasha, who also disappeared years earlier.

Between these days, the story dips into the near and far history of the characters and of Chechnya. These are stories of tyranny and torture, of bravery and loyalty; tales of deprivation and horror, spanning generations. Marra helpfully includes a timeline at the top of each chapter which works as a simple (if somewhat artless) way to keep track of where we are in the history of Chechnya.

The characters live in a world where friends and neighbours can disappear at any moment – whether as refugees over the mountains or into an ominous prison called The Landfill. There are few answers and questions are dangerous to ask. In less than four hundred pages, Marra covers a lot of ground, detailing lives of many characters. He even dips into the futures of characters we only see in passing and never again and these glimpses seem to offer some hope.

In the end, the characters are more intertwined than seems entirely plausible (though Chechnya is a small country) but this is the only weakness in an otherwise compelling novel. Well worth a read for both the excellent writing and for a look at some very recent history.

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