Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Chechnya is in a post-war zone, but it’s still home to some villages and individuals leading quiet lives of desperation. After her father is taken from their home for unknown reasons by Russian soldiers, eight year old Havaa is taken to the hospital where (hopefully) the Russians won’t find her. Akhmed, her neighbor, seeks to keep the little girl safe and in the care of the only doctor remaining at the rundown hospital, Sonja. After begrudgingly agreeing to let Havaa stay, Sonja takes Akhmed on as a “doctor” to help out as well. What unfolds is the lives of three people: the tragedies, sorrows, and determination to make a life in a condemnable place.

This is a story about Chechens, but not about the history of the country, instead, it’s about the everyday struggles of a group that is misunderstood and tossed around politically. I sat down with this book, knowing nothing about Chechnya other than it has a lot of struggles and doesn’t particularly want to be a part of Russia, to put it lightly. I didn’t get lost while reading this because of my lack of knowledge, though I was curious to learn more about the subject. What I’m trying to say is don’t be put off by not knowing about Chechnya. This is a book that is beautiful because of and in spite of its main subject matter: Chechen war.  

My favorite character was Khassan, an older man, who for the last few decades has been writing and rewriting a history of Chechnya. He happens to have a son, Ramzan, who is an informant for the Russians. Although Khassan stopped talking to his son when he became an informant, people in the village generally avoid him too. He’s a lonely man, but has put up a resistance to his son. He befriends a pack of wild dogs, which is amusing, and secretly takes care of Akhmed’s ailing wife while he is at the hospital. This man who wants to help, pursue his studies, and desperately wants to be around friends is such a wonderful character, and Marra’s writing only makes him stand out further.

Marra writes with straightforward honesty. He reveals each character to you in layers with skill and ease without blinding you with an emotional bias. In what at times seems an elegant simplicity, Marra writes gorgeous prose that haunt you with their beauty and power. For example:
“For months they'd run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric.” 

In a story where the characters are as complicated as the war that has continued on in one way or another for years, you feel a kinship with their sad stories. When the book is taken as a whole, the stories of each individual are heartbreaking, hopeful, and desperate, but as you read this book, it’s about the day to day. The story of Havaa and her father, Akhmed and his wife, Sonja and her sister unfolds into a story about compassionate individuals in a place where empathy is in short supply. If you enjoy literary fiction, a book you can sink into, and some strong characters, try A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

~Kristin M.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. They did not influence my review in any way.

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