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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

September 27, 2016


In the late 1990s in Chechnya, an eight-year old girl named Havaa hides as soldiers abduct her father and then burn her home. She flees to the woods, where she is found by a neighbor man, Akhmed. Unsure what to do, he takes her to a nearby hospital where they meet a bone-weary doctor named Sonja. The novel is about these three lives brought united by chance, how they weave together over times past, present and future in a bleak, devastated landscape.

It is a heavy novel with heavy themes—love and war, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice. The writing is very good, and there are moments both in the description and in the observations that are razor sharp. One I jotted down: An exchange between two characters, one of them saying that Marx was right, “religion is a crutch.” The other retorts, “If you step on a landmine, the crutch becomes a leg.”

The narrative is a scatter of scenes that, like the title suggests, paint a bigger picture when considered as a whole. They have the feeling of something blown apart by a bomb, and it takes an effort on the reader’s part to piece them together into something meaningful. Perhaps I didn’t fully have the patience for this one. I admired the craft, from the fantastic opening line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” But something about the characters felt distant all the way through. This book has great reviews—so good that I feel like I missed something or wasn’t in the right mood or didn’t pay close enough attention. Occasionally, I read a book that I love but is so off-beat that I hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. This case is the opposite. I didn’t love this book, but I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it.

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