A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Anthony Marra brings us something inadvertently topical: the brutal and yet gentle, poignant and yet uplifting story of what happens when Russia tries to pull a former satellite into line. This time it's Chechnya.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099575573

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Chechnya 2004: Akhmed stands watching while the Russian 'Ministry' break into his friend Dokaa's house, drag Dokaa away and set light to the remaining house. Shocked, Akhmed dashes over to rescue Dokaa's treasure: his 8 year old daughter Havaa. Realising he has to take her to safety, Akhmed moves the child to the local hospital (or rather the shell that used to accommodate it). There, alongside a less-than-skeleton staff with no equipment, Akhmed tries to do what he can for both his new charge and his countrymen knowing that he will not be the only person affected by his decision to care.

American writer Anthony Marra has something in common with Daniel Woodrell, someone else I've raved about in the past: both are members of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. This isn't the only surprise: this is Anthony's first novel. Please remember that statement as you read because you sure as heck won't believe it. 'Masterpiece' is the first word for which I reached as the novel unfolded, but in the end I had to admit that it's so much better than even that.

The present narrative covers 5 days in 2004 while also going back and forth over the decade back to 1994. This coincides with the first and part of the second Chechen War (which finished in 2009); a time when President Yeltsin sent tanks and troops into Chechnya to reassert Russian authority with horrific results.

In the second war alone between 54,000 and 74,000 military and civilians were killed and a further 5,000 civilians just disappeared. (The difference in figures depends on the statistical source.) So it's against this background that Anthony introduces us to some marvellously diverse people, all trying to stay alive against the odds.

When we first look at the pages, we're hit by the density of print. Don't be put off – we're soon hungrily devouring every word as we discover both how these people came to be here and their eventual fates. Indeed, a timeline under each chapter number denotes the year in which each is located, ensuring it makes perfect sense.

There are three main human pillars to the novel. Firstly there's Sonia; the only surgeon in a bombed out shell of a hospital, surviving on amphetamines, condensed milk and the knowledge that she's the only hope these partially obliterated casualties have. Secondly we have Khassan: once famous for writing a textbook but now fears the very dissemination of knowledge that he once revelled in as, in Chechnya, talk can prove fatal. The third mainstay is Akhmed, saviour of little Havaa and, as he himself admits, the worst GP in the country but he's still needed, doubling the hospital medical team on his arrival.

Anthony not only writes, he translates into words the inner workings of humanity and demonstrates this to great effect, particularly when he shares with us the mind and motivation of an informer.

In this novel, that's never going to win adulation from the Russian Tourist Board, there are also some wonderful little subtleties left for us via a few words here and to be coupled with our interpretation from our life experience. (Ironic as the book's title comes from a definition of the word 'life'.) These provide us with moments of revelation like realising the human cost of Akhmed's decision to save Havaa even though it's not spelt out.

However, this is not a doleful tale. It may be peppered with poignancy and irrigated with tears, but there are also triumphs and moments when we're ambushed by humour. For instance I love Deshi, the elderly, bitter nurse with the odd idea of seduction and jaded view of oncologists. I also smiled at the local 'procurer' who doesn't quite grasp biology or genetics when it comes to turtles.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set to become an accessible, classic for all, seeping into our consciousness and indelibly marking our minds. If you prefer simpler terms, it's a wonderfully observed slice of the lives we pray we'll never live, suffered by people just like us who probably once prayed the same.

Thank you Vintage for providing us with a copy for review!

Further Reading: We may never know what the Iowa Writing Workshop put in the water to enable them to author books like this, but if you'd like to read another exemplary example, we recommend The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell. You might also enjoy I Am A Chechen! by German Sadulaev.

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Buy A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra at Amazon.com.


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