A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


Anthony Marra, a 28-year-old man from Washington, D.C. has written a complex and emotionally satisfying novel with characters who are wildly different from any in his own life.

Set in Chechnya, the story occurs in 2004, but ranges back to the first Chechen war to flesh out the characters, and occasionally tells what happens to characters many years in the future. I found it helpful to read the Wikipedia entry on Chechnya for a clearer picture of this ravaged region.

The characters we meet first are Hava, an 8-year-old child whose father had just been taken by the Russians and Ahmed, a neighbor who trained as a physician, but was only good at drawing portraits. The feds also wanted to capture Hava, so Ahmed takes her for safekeeping to a hospital in a nearby town which is run almost single-handedly by Sonja, a physician who trained in London. We later meet Natasha, Sonja’s beautiful little sister who suffered terribly in the first Chechen war and Ramzan, who held out against torture in the first war, but gave up the names of many of his neighbors and friends in the second. The characters are fully formed and their complicated connections are eventually revealed. This is the story of ordinary people who are not able to avoid the violence of the Russians on one hand or the rebels on the other.

The story of the unspeakably grim lives of these characters is leavened by the humor. Here’s a conversation Sonja has with a black marketer who provides the hospital with necessities:

“A turtle is 100 percent reptile,” she said.  “I imagine even Allo knows that.”

“Don’t insult me. Everyone knows a turtle is crustacean on
its mother’s side.”

“Explain that to me,” she said, shifting in the seat as the
car spun in circles.

“A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later, a turtle pops
out. It’s called evolution. “

“I hope your biology teacher was sent to the gulag,” she

The title comes from a definition Natasha found as she read The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, a massive work of 4,884 pages of useless information. “Only one entry supplied an
adequate definition and she circled it with red ink and she referred to it nightly.  Life: a constellation of vital phenomena, organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

Even though I listened to this over the course of some weeks with several long periods of not listening to it, I could fall back into the story readily. It was sometimes terribly grim, but always rewarding. It was longlisted for the National Book Award; it deserves more.

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