A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

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Read 22/04/2016-23/04/2016

Rating: 5 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge

I’ve had this book recommended to me a few times, so when it was nominated for the March Madness challenge, I decided it was one of the challenge books I would read.

The girl’s fingers braceleted his wrist. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and sprint northward until the forest swallowed the village, but standing before the blackened timbers, he couldn’t summon the strength to bring a consoling word to his lips, to hold the girl’s hand in his own, to move his feet in the direction he wanted them to go.

Akhmed recovers Havaa from the back garden of her burning home on the night her father is taken away by the Russian Federation forces. Chechnya is in a state of civil war, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. All Akhmed can think to do is take Havaa to the nearest city, to a doctor he has heard of, a woman he thinks will keep the girl safe.

So begins Anthony Marra’s incredible telling of life in post-Soviet Chechnya. I don’t know nearly enough about that country’s history. Marra clearly does. One of the characters, Khassan, has written a comprehensive chronicle that he periodically, from the 1960s to the fall of the Berlin Wall, tries to have published. Marra gives us glimpses of the historic past through Khassan’s reminiscences, and through flashbacks from other characters. The main thrust of the book is centred on the two civil wars that ran from 1994-1996 and 1999-2009 (although Marra’s book ends in 2004), and the impact they have on Sonja, the doctor, and her sister, Natasha, alongside Akhmed, Havaa and others in their village.

Havaa’s story made me feel sad. Anything that speaks of the lives of children under conditions of war makes me feel sad. Havaa is 8 years old, and has the surreal view of the world that most 8 year olds have, but she is also old, because of the things she has seen and had to assimilate into her young life. She views adults with a certain mistrust, even Akhmed, whom she loves, trusting him to deliver her safely back to her father, wherever he is.

Akhmed is a warm character. He has his own issues, personal choices to make that create conflict within him, but through it he shines as a good man, full of love. He is capable of bringing joy to the hardest situation. I spent a lot of the book wanting to hug him and tell him he was doing okay.

Sonja is hardened by what she has given up in order to return to Chechnya. She is hardened by her relationship with her sister, whom we meet in flashbacks, and who is missing in the now of the story. She has the black sense of humour typical of surgeons, made blacker by the trauma she is living through in a city pitted with craters, where landmines bring new casualties to her door daily, and where soldiers shoot ammunition aimlessly into the sky in order to be paid.

The interweaving of family stories, and tales of displacement, with the stories of surviving in a war zone made me think of Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings, and Victoria Hislop’s The Island. It also made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno, and Andrey Kurkov’s books set in post-Soviet Ukraine.

For such heavy subject matter, Marra has a lightness of touch that prevents the reader being dragged down into despair. He doesn’t make light of the situation in any way, rather he brings to the page the indomitability of the human spirit. The characters are very real in the way they think, express themselves and behave. There is nothing stylised about them. They are not performers in a morality play. They are simply people existing in an horrific situation going about their lives the way people do.

Marra’s turn of phrase captures people’s natures well. Sonja’s mother’s ground down existence in the years following the break up of the Soviet Union is revealed in the line “[she] slipped into a contentedness that usually appeared only after the red wine had fallen below the bottle label.” Sonja is revealed to be a teenager who “lived like a nail driving through the surface of daily routines and disappointments.” In comparison with Sonja’s relentless focus on getting through life no matter what the cost to personal relationships, Akhmed is described in terms of respect for his fellow humans. “Common decency was the one thing he had that [Sonja] didn’t, and he held onto it as a rare, improbable triumph.” Even transient characters have their natures and futures revealed. A man who loses his leg to a land mine, doped up on heroin, is described thus: “Somewhere in that hazy, heroin-induced slumber, he was already designing in his dreams the monument to war dead he would, in twenty-three years, make of steel and concrete.”

This is a book that made my heart swell with happiness and with sorrow, that made me grateful I don’t live in a war zone, or even in a former Soviet country under threat of becoming a war zone. It is staggering in the ground it covers, and in the way the characters are warm and believable. They will remain with me for a while.

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