Book review Monday: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

I’ve read several enjoyable, thought provoking, stick-in-your-craw-in-a-good-way books recently, including Stephen King’s The Stand, Susan Choi’s My Education, and Monica Ali’s In The Kitchen. Perhaps I will review some or all of these in the coming weeks. But today, I want to talk about a book that I can’t stop thinking about, even a week after finishing it: Anthony Marra’s spectacular novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

ACOVP (as I will abbreviate it) did not immediately suck me in. In fact, I started it a month ago, read ten pages or so, and then put it down, because I couldn’t engage with the story. In the meantime, I read several other books (see above) and then picked up ACOVP again, and this time, something clicked. After getting over an initial hump of confusion in the opening pages, I became completely lost in this book and its fascinating, sad, weird cast of characters, all of whom are trying, imperfectly, to navigate their way through a hellish and inescapable situation.


The story begins in 2004, in and around the city of Volchansk, Chechnya. In the opening scenes, a man, Akhmed, is helping a young girl, Havaa, escape from “the Feds,” the government forces who have kidnapped her father — believing him to have been colluding with Chechen separatist rebels — and are now looking for her, as well. Akhmed and Havaa were neighbors, and Akhmed is now the only adult left in the village who Havaa can rely upon. Not seeing any other options, Akhmed brings Havaa to Hospital No. 6, a bombed out wasteland with few supplies, which is staffed by one nurse, the ill-tempered Deshi, and one doctor, the bitter and haughty Sonja, an ethnic Russian who returned to her native Chechnya from London in 1996 to try to find her missing sister, and never left again. Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but was spectacularly unsuccessful — he is renowned as the worst doctor in Chechnya — offers his services in return for Sonja’s allowing Havaa to stay at the hospital, hidden away from the Feds. Sonja reluctantly agrees, given the hospital’s desperate need for extra hands, and so the story begins.

As we learn about the characters and how they are all connected through messy webs of birth and death, the novel flashes back in time to paint a startling, chilling picture of war-torn Chechnya. I was not familiar with Chechen history before reading this book, but Marra makes Chechnya’s troubled past vivid by showing how individual characters’ lives are shaped — and often stunted — by their homeland’s constant unrest. The primary narrative of the novel takes place in 2004, during the second Chechen War, which began in 1999 when Russian troops invaded Chechnya in response to the invasion of Dagestan by a Chechnya-based Islamist militant group. The war between Russian forces and Chechen separatists continued into 2009. The novel also looks back to the first Chechen War, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, also between Russian forces and Chechen separatists, and Marra looks back even further to Chechnya’s long, turbulent history of subjugation and war, including the mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia during World War II. One of the characters, Khassan, is a historian who has written a long and painstakingly detailed history of Chechnya, beginning in prehistoric times. The novel describes Khassan’s difficulty in keeping his book up to date as Chechnya rapidly changed with the fall of the Soviet Union:

Everything did change, faster than his fingers could type. What he had been too cautious to hope for was pulled from his dreams and made real on the television screen. At that momentous hour on December 26, 1991, as he watched the red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — the empire extending eleven time zones, from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic coast, encompassing more than a hundred ethnicities and two hundred languages; the collective whose security demanded the sacrifice of millions, whose Slavic stupidity had demanded the deportation of Khassan’s entire homeland; that utopian mirage cooked up by cruel young men who gave their mustaches more care than their morality; that whole horrid system that told him what he could be and do and think and say and believe and love and desire and hate, the system captained by Lenin and Zinoviev and Stalin and Malenkov and Beria and Molotov and Khrushchev and Kosygin and Mikoyan and Podgorny and Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko and Gorbachev, all of whom but Gorbachev he hated with a scorn no author should have for his subject, a scorn genetically encoded in his blood, inherited from his ancestors with their black hair and dark skin — as he watched that flag sink down the Kremlin flagpole for the final time, left limp by the windless sky, as if even the weather wanted to impart on communism this final disgrace, he looped his arms around his wife and son and he held them as the state that had denied him his life quietly died. 

What I loved about this book, apart from Marra’s skill in bringing human context to the horrors of war in Chechnya, was the beautiful, evocative descriptions of places. Marra’s writing allows the reader to picture, perfectly clearly, places where the reader has never been or even dreamed of going. For instance, I loved this description of a nightclub in Chechnya where one of the characters, an ethnic Russian named Natasha, used to frequent:

She spent her Fridays at a nightclub called Nightclub, situated in what had been an aviation assembly plant. The floor spread across the eight-story hangar, wide enough to contain the gyrations of half of Chechnya. Nightclub had never reached, and never would reach, capacity.  After downing drinks at the bar, Natasha and her friends shimmied their way to the center of the hangar. There, red velvet ropes created a ten-square-meter dance floor where the young, well-dressed, and secular could press against each other, shrieking and shaking in epileptic spasms of floodlight, freedom found in the ruins of empire.

Finally, this book is remarkable for its ability to meld humor with tragedy. The characters’ lives, in many ways, are hopeless, because they are in an impossible situation with no conceivable escape. But there are still moments of levity, and even joy. One of my favorite conversations in the book takes place between Sonja, the foreign-educated surgeon, and Akhmed, an unskilled doctor from the village. Akhmed, who is not stupid but who is rather unsophisticated, reveals to Sonja that he thinks the President of the United States is named Ronald McDonald. Sonja heaps scorn upon him, but later, feels badly and tries to apologize.

“I’m sorry I called you an idiot.”

“You only implied it. Do you want to make it up to me?”

“Not really,” she said.

“Then tell me who Ronald McDonald is.”

“Very soon I’ll have to apologize for calling you an idiot again.”

“Imply,” he reminded.

“No, this time I’ll likely come out and say it.”

“I already know he isn’t the American president.”

“I think you’ll be disappointed.”

“I almost always am.”

“He’s a clown.”

“A clown?”

“A clown who sells hamburgers.”

“Does he cook the hamburgers?”

“Does it matter?”

“I may be an idiot,” he said gravely, “but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown.”

There are plenty of other instances of dialogues that crackle with dry wit, despite the horrifying backdrop to the conversations. These moments of lightness are part of what makes this book, which otherwise might be bogged down in doom and gloom, readable, enjoyable, and lovable.

Highly recommended for one and all. Here is what the NYT had to say, in case you’re interested.

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