A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (5 out of 5)



The book starts out with eight year old Havaa hiding in the woods in the middle of the night in the cold Russian winter. Her father was taken away by Russian soldiers and their house set afire. All Havaa has is her little blue suitcase, which she had packed ahead of time, per her father’s orders. Akhmed, their neighbor of many years, finds her and attempts to console the shocked stoic child. He ends up bringing her to the abandoned hospital where Sonja, the only doctor, treats the wounded. This seemingly simple solution sets about a domino effect that effects all of their lives. Sonja is a hard-as-brittle, tough as nails doctor who doesn’t have time to watch this eight year old girl who seems to be suffering ill effects of grief. She’s no nicer to Akhmed, who’s trying very hard to prove his worth in the medical field, if nothing else, to help Sonja treat the overwhelming number of patients she has. A child thrown into this situation? Hardly ideal for saving lives, at least in Sonja’s view. It’s only for five earth shattering days, and the narratives take place over a ten year span, but Havaa’s backstory is stunning, and it ends up tilting Sonja’s world upside down. Sonja has been grieving and kicking herself quietly for her sister Natasha’s disappearance. Sonja and Havaa form a tentative truce and friendship, and the stories begin to be told and the answers to what happened to Havaa’s father to lead her to this turn in the road, as well as what happened to Sonja’s wild child sister Natasha, begin to become crystal clear. When it begins to wind together, you are stunned. The entire arc of the story and the telling of the entire story took my breath away.

The characters are fantastic. Intricately drawn, realistically troubled, tortured by the perils and powers of love, in a time of incredible loss, poverty, death, and daily dangers of war in Chechnya, Marra writes them so vividly that you find yourself turning page after page, despite the hard lives being led by the characters during the time of the novel taking place. I’ve read books like this before (hello James Joyce, you wordy, torturesmith motherfucker) and got so winded from the wordiness of the character that I tuned out intellectually and never invest enough emotionally to give a flying fuck through the rest of the book. That is definitely not the case here. There is plenty of darkness, but there is also light shining through the trying events that do take place in this book. I hated to see the book end, yet I wanted it to, so I could see what happened and how everyone and everything got to this point. I was not disappointed. Definitely a wonderful, inspiring book about the power of love. It’s a curious thing. Makes one man weak, another man insane (sorry, I had to). This is definitely the case with Akhmed and the other male characters, all of whom are brought into the web of romantic love by wartime and dire circumstances. The thing that stands out is that none of the male characters appear to be just going with the flow as far as the pursuit of romantic love. They’re all 100% fully in on this game, and that devotion brings another whole layer to the literary onion.

What else? Plot development, character development, and oh yes, location, location, location. If you want to write a stunning novel that rips up your paper hearts and sets your confetti streams on fire, set the novel in Russia. Russia has to be the bleakest place, next to maybe Antartica and Greenland, in the geographical dice, to set a novel. The author does a grand job of describing the bleakness and paints it in well with the events taking place in the story. The cover? Spectacular. I was definitely pulled in by the cover of this book. You know I’m a sucker for a great cover. Not only is it a great cover, but it’s a great book. Read it.

~ by generationgbooks on April 6, 2014.

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