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This novel's been mentioned on a few "best of 2013" lists and I think it well deserves the honor. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra explores the emotional complexities of life in a war-plagued place, as the upheaval of conflict and death reshape the ties of family, friends, neighbors, and tradition. The setting is Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, a period that included two nasty wars between Russian government forces and Chechen separatists. Because of the ties of the rebels to Islamic extremism, I believe, the US media never took much interest in the strife, much less its impact on the lives of regular people.
It's those lives that Marra focuses on. The narrative begins in 2004, with a man named Akhmed watching Russian soldiers abduct his neighbor, who has already lost all his fingers to a previous interrogation by state security. Left behind is the neighbor's young daughter, who has escaped into the woods with a mysterious blue suitcase. Akhmed takes the girl to the only safe place he knows, the hospital in town. There, he meets Sonja, a cynical, exhausted ethnic Russian surgeon who spends her days amputating limbs shredded by landmines and is the last competent medical professional around. I say "competent" because Akhmed is himself a doctor, but one who, to his own shame, finished in the bottom tenth of his class and excels more at his true passion, painting. He's unable to help even his own wife, who's bedridden with a wasting disease.
Such are the contradictions at the hearts of the characters, who are gradually revealed through a non-linear narrative that travels back and forth through time to unpeel the layers of their backstories, connections, and secrets. We also come to know Khassan, a WWII veteran who has spent the past few decades of his life writing a history of the Chechen people (and rewriting it, each time official guidelines change); Khassan's son, Ramzan, who turned informer for the Russians and hasn't been spoken to since by the father he provides for; and Sonya's sister, Natasha, who remained behind to endure her own horrors after Sonya went to medical school in Britain.
There's both absurdity and fragile beauty in the story's small details. Akhmed is committed to painting portraits of the disappeared, which he leaves around town -- though he adds a long nostril hair to one vain woman's face, because she died still owing him money. There's some confusion between a former US president and the mascot of McDonalds, leading to the great line "I may be an idiot, but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown". Two people in a truck argue over which dead radio station has the most pleasing static. An imam imprisoned in a landfill pit gives funerals for his fellow prisoners the moment after they ascend a long ladder heavenward, disappearing from view into the hands of their executioners.
At the core of this book are the human entanglements that extend before and after wartime, but are complicated by its chaos, with people's faults and virtues both magnified. Actions motivated by pride, guilt, trauma, resentment, and shame become difficult to distinguish from those motivated by love. Even Ramzan, the informer, becomes sympathetic, when later chapters uncover a costly act of courage in his past, and whose sins, as an old proverb goes, are tied up with the sins of the father. Marra occasionally interrupts the narrative to give us little vignettes about incidental characters, a technique that's slightly distracting, but adds to a pervading sense that nothing happens in isolation from everything else. Our connections often seem to be subjective constellations, but that doesn't stop them from being. I admired his unusual choice to project a few threads decades into the future, a reminder that life will go on, with its cargo of good and terrible memories.
A beautiful, bleak, affecting work of literary fiction, and one that got me a little teary-eyed at the end. My recommendation has some caveats: the scenes of brutality might be a little tough for some readers, and the sometimes confusing web of links between characters and events requires careful attention. I also can't comment on how true-to-life the novel's details are, having been written by an American whose knowledge of place can only be secondary, but whatever blemishes might be in the brush strokes, the overall picture reaches towards a universal statement. 4.5 stars.
I didn't find Colette Whitaker to be a remarkable audio reader, but nothing about her performance bothered me, either.
19 of 19 people found this review helpful
This is a powerful book, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hopeful. As the two doctors, Sonja and Akhmed, save Havaa, a young girl caught in the horrors of the Chechnyan wars after her father is abducted, we learn to love and hate the characters around her, while also recognizing that they are all caught in their own nightmares. The characters are complex and none of them is always what we expect, thus making the book continually interesting to read, not always to know what comes next (although that's important too) but also to learn what came before.
Marra uses foreshadowing to help reassure us that some characters will actually outlive the horror, thus making the unspeakable realities of the war somewhat easier to read. Nevertheless, the descriptions of what takes place at "the Landfill" are horrific and disturbing. How can people treat each other this way? Can this be real? How do people face such horror and live? What is life?
But live, they do, and interact. They eat and play and make love and survive. They build on their past and build towards a future. In the end, there is triumph and we are reminded that Life--a constellation of vital pheonomena--carries for all of us happiness and sadness, birth and death.
12 of 12 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be better than the print version?
The narration was at times off putting, probably as a British listener I found certain pronounciation points jarred, and the lack of narrative inflexion made it more difficult to follow than it needed to be.
What did you like best about this story?
The story itself was excellent with great structure and layering of different perspectives.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No, but I did finish it after our book club meeting as recommended by others, and it was well worth it.
Any additional comments?
Loved the story but this was the first time I felt let down by the weakness in narration.