[484]: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

ConstellationGOODREADS SUMMARY | Random House Canada | May 6th, 2013 | Paperback, 384 pp. | Adult Fiction | Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

This is one of those books that’s difficult to describe, with emotions that’s even harder to articulate. I’m always amazed when a writer is able to transform something despicable into a beautiful, life-affirming masterpiece. It’s hard to grasp that this is Anthony Marra’s debut work. The history, the hardships, the small miracles and the descriptive way he transports his reader to that time speaks of a veteran writer with several awards under his belt and not a – for lack of a better word – newbie.

It’s so easy to see how much time he spent immersing himself with the history for which this book is about. I, as a reader, can appreciate how he whet my curiosity for a war I was foolishly oblivious about. After reading this book, I spent some considerable time scouring the internet for anything I can find about the war; one that cost over 160,000 lives and immeasurable destruction for ten years. 

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Haava woke from dreams of sea anemones.”

The novel begins in a way that foretells the fate of Chechen nationals unlucky enough to have lived through the first and the second war. Haava, an 8-year-old clever, inquisitive child had just been orphaned. On the night of his abduction, Havaa’s father had the foresight to lead her into the woods to spare her life; while their neighbour, Akhmed, watched and waited fearfully until he’s able to see to Haava’s safety. In the morning, he’ll take her to the lone salvation he can offer the child by asking Sonja, the only surgeon left in their war-torn region.

Akhmed’s wife is in a permanent vegetative state. He’s seen through her care with very minimal resources he could afford and the paltry medical knowledge he remembers from school. He is, for all intents and purposes, a doctor himself. Although an incompetent one, for most of the time. What he lacks, he makes up with love and dazzling optimism in a world where kindness and beauty is buried deep in the rubble of a God-forsaken country.

I wish I could paint you the stories of these characters as beautiful as Anthony has done. I wish I can convince you to read it even though you’re probably grossing about how unnecessarily long this review had become.

 This is the type of novel where one person holds the key in unlocking the story’s brilliance. You can say it’s Havaa; for she touched the lives of each character; or Natasia, Sonja’s troubled sister who came and left like the smoke from a freshly-fired artillery. But that’s the best thing about this book. Anthony made every single one of his characters important enough to hold the story together.

Natasia and Sonja’s relationship bears the scar of an early childhood sibling rivalry. Over the years, they’ve played their roles with uneasy acceptance. Sonja, the one with the brilliant mind, moved to London to start her medical studies at the beginning of the first war. While Natasia stayed behind and tried to escape the best way she could. Sonja will lose contact with her sister and will eventually be the reason why she leaves the comfort and peace of London.

Natasia did not have an easy life. We see her suffer in the hands of an abusive lover; we see her fend for herself while bombs rained down on her city; we see her fall in the hands of a sex-trafficker by her own choice. Eventually, she’ll succumb to drug addiction. By the time Sonja and Natasia catches up to each other, both have gone through unimaginable horrors.

This is a war story. Nothing will be easy to digest. There are tales of torture, amputation, and heartbreak. But there are also love, compassion, and hope to brighten an otherwise stark novel. Once again, I find myself scouring the web; searching for the whys, the whens, and the hows. This is the kind of novel where a reader will be tempted to understand the futility of it all, and would cry at the impossibility of that task.