A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
New York. Hogarth. 2013. ISBN 9780770436407
After reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I can only echo the amazement of other reviewers: that such an accomplished novel is Anthony Marra’s first and that he visited Chechnya, the setting, only after he had all but completed it. The places, the topography, the course of the wars—the remembered first occupation and the second occupation by the Russians within the ten-year span of the novel, 1994 to 2004—all this context was largely created from determined research.
The novel begins and ends in the middle. During Chechnya’s rebellion against Russian occupation, a girl’s father is whisked away by soldiers, presumably to be shot, and the eight-year-old is taken by a neighbor to a hospital, where he bargains with the head surgeon to help as a medical orderly in exchange for her taking in the girl. These three characters are narrated forward for five days in 2004, interspersed with backstories that connect them, even while pointing to their uncertain futures.
Their conflicts are quite natural: the surgeon, a Russian national whose family had been settled in Chechnya, recognizes that the neighbor, who had been functioning as the village doctor, is at best semicompetent, though a good artist. The child, however appealing, poses a danger both to the surgeon and the neighbor (and his bedridden wife), since she is wanted by the Russians, in keeping with their policy of complete family extermination of rebels or sympathizers as a warning to others.
The ten-year range of markers begins each chapter, with the focal year for the chapter in boldface. This aid is quite helpful in a novel that alternates between the present and the past, chapter by chapter.
Centering on the characters’ stories and their attempts to cope with an unstable political/military situation, Marra keeps the style straightforward and informative. The texture of their experience comes primarily from character interchanges, in which people who are, in a sense, always under siege manage to keep their spirits up as well as their dedication to humane values, even when they don’t realize it. Their hard-bitten exchanges are often surprisingly funny and sometimes even tender.
The secondary characters are quite strong, even memorable: an old man who burns his life’s work, a history of Chechnya; his son, whose torture by the Russians turns him into an informer; the surgeon’s sister, who is made an addict and sex slave, but comes back to paint a mural and work in the hospital—and then disappears again.
Some readers may be disappointed that political history is slighted, that there is not more on the religious fervor of the Chechen rebels. But the novel reminds us that such wars entangle many who are not impelled to fight and want nothing more than a return to something approaching normalcy.
Marra’s constellation of characters, revealed from inside through changes in point of view, show us “life,” which is, after all, the word defined by the title, according to a Russian medical dictionary. These people will stay with you.
W. M. Hagen
Oklahoma Baptist University