A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

Overview: 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.

Gail Reid (10/02/14): I am easily captured by a creative title. When the author, Anthony Marra, looked up the definition of "life" in a medical dictionary, he was drawn to an unusual explanation: "Life is a constellation of vital phenomena —organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." And, that is exactly what this wonderfully original book is about.

Set in 1990's Chechnya, the story takes place during the period of the two Chechen wars. A London-trained surgeon returns home to find her missing sister who like many in the novel disappears again. Sonja takes charge of the local hospital and works tirelessly to keep it running, when a local doctor, Akhmed, incompetent by his own admission, appears with a young, orphaned girl Haava.The relationship of these three broken characters and several other supporting ones conveys powerfully the wretchedness of war.

Did I know much about the Chechen wars? Nothing at all. But this story is so meaningfully rendered, that any modern ethnic war-torn area could substitute for Chechnya. Is this a happy story? No, it is dark but it is rich in voice and it will resonate with you.
Rating: *****

Ricki Brodie (07/17/13): The novel is set in war torn Chechnia from 1994 to 2004 in a small village where an artist with an M.D. Degree and no knowledge of medicine witnesses the taking of his best friend by the federal troups and the burning of his home. Akhmed hides his friend's daughter who is also wanted by the police. Akhmed's wife is in a vegetative state from the ravages of war and he must care for her. His neighbor, an elderly man, has written a voluminous history of Chechnia but must keep changing the language to suit the changing politicos in power. The man also has a son that is an informer and the cause of the loss of many citizens. His father has not spoken to him in two years, yet the son supplies him with his daily dose of insulin.

Akhmed takes the girl to the hospital to the sole doctor, Sonja, hoping for help in protecting her. Akhmed offers his "medical" skills in trade at the bombed out hospital. Sonja studied medicine in London but came back to find her sister who disappeared after the first war. The sister returns only to disappear again.

The book shows the horrors of war yet the resignation that the end is inevitable. We root for the characters and hope for survival. The characters lives intertwine. Sonja sees her life like a moth circling a dead bug. This is juxtaposed against the textbook definition of life - "a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, prodution, adaptation." It is an amazing read.
Rating: ****

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