I received this book free from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth on May 7th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction, Russian
Source: Blogging for Books
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New York Times Notable Book of the Year * Washington PostTop Ten Book of the Year
In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content from the author.
“Each night he told her a new chapter, and so many nights had gone by, so many chapters had been told, that they referred to it as chapters rather than a story, because stories had endings and theirs had none.”
Before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I knew very little about Chechnya. Hell, I probably couldn’t even point to it on a map (if you’re curious, it’s here). I will admit, I was intimidated to read a book with a subject and a people so far removed from my wheelhouse. Fear not! There are snip-its of history woven in that provide enough detail to not feel like a noob, but not so much that it is like reading a text book.
I found strong similarities in theme and message to other books that deal with wars on ethnicity or identity (like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Night by Elie Wiesel, and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper). More than that, I discovered a profound connection to the characters simply as a human being who has experienced uncertainty and sorrow, joy and love.
“In the shoebox the identity cards were layered eight deep. She held a card to the light and set it back down. ‘He’s one of these,’ she said.”
Despite its moments of violence and terror, the core of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is about normal people trying to survive while their world disintegrates. It’s about a woman who can’t stop thinking about the last thing she said to her sister who has gone missing in the chaos of war. It’s about a father who obsesses over the mistakes he made with his son, and will do anything to make them right. And it’s about a man, who risks his freedom and his life, to save a little orphan girl.
“He had always tried to treat Havaa as a child and she always went along with it, as though childhood and innocence were fantastical creatures that had died long ago, resurrected only in games of make believe.”
Some of my favorite moments in this all-too-heavy book are the brief glimpses of humor and happiness – a little girl trying to teach a one-armed man to juggle, a man sharing his only food with stray dogs that roam his neighborhood, and discussions about how turtles evolved.
While A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is artfully crafted, I’m not certain I would recommend it to anyone. It is gut wrenching, heart breaking and emotionally exhausting. Should you choose to read this book, be sure you have something fluffy lined up for afterwards.