A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
396 pp. Hogarth. $15.00.
War, as we see it on televised news, lasts roughly three to five minutes, involves spectacular explosions, and is usually followed by a pharmaceutical commercial. Sometimes amidst the blur of noise and bloodshed, we catch glimpses of ordinary people, maybe the eyes of a child gazing over a parent’s shoulder while being carried off into the distance towards—what?…home?…a shelter?…a hospital?
Anthony Marra’s debut novel examines what it means to survive when one’s everyday surroundings become a war zone. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens with eight-year-old Havaa awakening on the morning after her village home in Chechnya has been burned by the same Federalist thugs who have taken her father.
Akhmed, the neighbor who rescues her, is one of six main characters that collide and connect in the shifting constellation of this story. Others include a Russian surgeon who is searching for her sister, a young man who betrays his neighbors, and his father who refuses to speak to him. All struggle to rise above the circumstances engulfing them in Russia’s war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Those circumstances make for grim reading. Marra does not neglect the quotidian reality of wartime life. Describing the routines of the surgeon’s lost sister, he tells us: “With the remaining civilians she drew buckets from unboarded wells and strained the water through pillowcases before boiling it. Then food shortages. No milk, then no plums, then no cabbages, then no corn meal.”
Desperate enough. But the revulsion comes when we read of people who are “disappeared” and of people who are tortured. Fingers, then testicles, are sliced off with bolt cutters when neighbor refuses to inform upon neighbor. Rapes. Beatings. It’s war. But unlike our television news, these people don’t retreat into the background. They are, instead, the heartbreaking center of each chapter.
Yet, this is not a novel of unceasing pain and brutality. Humor, so often rooted in tragedy, is surprisingly abundant in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. We sometimes have no choice but to survive, to be resilient. Within our constellations of friendship and family, we may find ourselves able to laugh in the face of outside cruelty.
In its astonishingly beautiful prose, in its humor–in its very kindness–this novel reminds us that those Syrian, Venezuelan, and Ukrainian faces we see on the nightly news are, after all, human.
Reviewed by Sally Nurss