A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


A crippled hospital, an orphaned young girl, and two heroic doctors provide the axis for a powerful story set in the war weary Russian province of Chechnya during a decade of tension that begins in 1994.  "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" allows the profound despair saturating the intersecting lives of inhabitants in a small Chechen village to come alive one character, one page at a time.  Author Anthony Marra also weaves a spellbinding, historical narrative to accompany his story of loss, betrayal, love, and hope.  

Though Marra presents memories collected over a period of ten years, the actual story timeline highlights five days in 2004.  When Akhmed witnesses the brutal kidnapping of his good friend and neighbor Dokka by Russian soldiers, Akhmed's future is forever changed and forever challenged.  Driven by an inherit kindness and fear for Dokka's abandoned eight year old daughter Havaa, Akhmed rescues the young girl, along with her blue suitcase, from the grips of war threatening her very existence.  They embark upon a journey to a spartan hospital unrecognizable as a place of healing except for the one remaining doctor: Sonja.   

The intimidating Sonja is reluctant to shelter Havaa until Akhmed, himself a doctor, offers his assistance in exchange.  Due to the overwhelming needs in the trauma and maternity wards, the suspicious doctor accepts the arrangement.  She soon realizes his incompetence yet recognizes his compassion.  And though she is addicted to amphetamines and suffers from hallucinations, Sonja is very gifted in her relentless pursuit to save lives.  The overworked doctor is haunted in her personal life by the disappearance of her sister Natasha.  She is determined to find her younger sister and take back what the war has stolen from her.  Sonja's search for Natasha is a continual thread placed expertly throughout the book to possibly represent the aspect of loss experienced by so many ravaged by war in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."  Amidst the insanity permeating the hospital, nurse Deshi offers some humor and temporary lightness.  

Marra's compilation is thick with history, but the telling does seem necessary in order to give the plight of his characters the justice they deserve.  Akhmed's friend and neighbor Khassan has written an almost 3000 page manuscript of Chechen history, and the author cleverly uses pieces from the masterpiece to establish a historical background.  Khassan records the rich history of his homeland partly to escape the shame he feels due to the help his son Ramzan gives a brutal government denying Chechnya's sovereignty. 

The book has many strengths.  The characters are well developed;  the devastating effects on the people of Chechnya struggling to survive a long, tedious second war are clearly illustrated; and the plot builds towards a satisfying conclusion without losing its focus.  "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is a phenomenal read. 







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