Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena made it onto the fiction long list for the 2013 National Book Award. Normally I avoid anything, fiction or nonfiction, that is about the very real wars that have happened, or continue to happen, on this earth. But for Marra's book I decided to take a chance.
The Situation: It is the Second Chechen War and Dokka has just been taken from his home by the Russian Federation. After briefly searching the house, the Feds then continued to douse the inside with gasoline and set the entire structure on fire. His eight year-old daughter, Havaa, would escape only because her father had enough foresight to have packed a "just in case" bag for her and was able to push her out of the back door before the Feds entered the house. The little girl hid in the woods while her father was taken, and afterwards she is found by Akhmed, a friend of Dokka's. Akhmed knows Havaa cannot stay with him, as the informant who gave Dokka's name to the Feds is nearby and will be looking for her, so he takes her to the hospital. Sonja, the doctor who now runs the less than fully functional hospital, is reluctant to take on the small child. Sonja also isn't thrilled that the completely incompetent Akhmed wants to stick around and help out, but she needs all the help she can get. And Akhmed holds onto the faint hope that they all may be able to save each other.
The Problem: As I already mentioned, it is the Second Chechen War, and things are bad. The informant that gave Dokka's name to the Feds is still looking for Havaa, knowing she couldn't have gone far. And the people he reports to keep asking for names, and he's willing to give up his friends and neighbors in order to save his own neck. And while Sonja gets used to the presence of two more people in the hospital, she also deals with her own loss of her sister, whose narrative shows the trials and hardships many women go through when seeking illegal passage to Europe. Even Akhmed, as he attempts to keep Havaa safe, also has a very sick wife at home for whom he expects death is very close. He cares for her while using his current relationship with Havaa as some sort of absolution for how he treated Dokka in the past. Everyone is struggling to just survive, but they are also struggling to keep secrets from decisions made in the past, some of which were made out of necessity, and some just out of selfishness. In the end it may not even matter.
Genre, Theme, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place in 2004 in Chechnya. The Second Chechen War rages on and won't see an end for five more years. And while this book does take place during a war, there aren't a any battle scenes. Instead, Marra focuses on the civilians that stayed behind in Chechnya, or in Sonja's case, those that came back. I could just say that the overarching theme is one of survival, but there is more to it than that. Not only are these people trying to survive, and each one has a limit to what they will do in order to do that, but it is also about how many are willing to look beyond themselves in the face of imminent danger. Akhmed knows he is putting his life on the line for Havaa, but he does it anyway. Meanwhile, Ramzan gives up the lives of others in order to continue his own and get medicine for his father, something his father will come to resent. And even Dokka, before his disappearance, made room in his house for refugees needing a place to stay. And Sonja will come back from the safety of London to find her sister, and then will continue as a doctor in the nearby hospital...a hospital that many are quickly fleeing as she resolves to stay. This is the effect this war has had on this particular group of people, and everyone's decisions effect everyone else in some way.
My Verdict: The only reason I picked up this book is because it was on the long list for the National Book Award, and the UTSA library had it available for check out. But I am glad I read it and glad I pushed through some of the harder and more brutal scenes to the end. None of these characters are completely innocent people. Everyone is guilty of some act of selfishness at some point, except maybe Havaa. But somehow, even with all of their flaws, Marra made each one relatable. Sure, I would like to think I have nothing in common with Ramzan the informant, but even his story manages to evoke some sympathy despite his continuing acts of cowardice that result in the disappearance and ultimate death of others. The novel is a picture of war that is often unseen and forgotten about. It is about the day to day life of those who aren't fighting, but trying to live their lives while their home is being torn apart. It is not only informative, but also compelling, and incredibly heartbreaking.
Favorite Moment: The reveals that Marra places throughout this book, not only about the main characters but also about many minor ones, are absolutely fantastic and done incredibly well, even the tragic ones. Marra slowly and thoughtfully reveals the plight of each of the people the reader has come to care about. In the same that way he unwraps their past and shows how they are all connected, he unwraps their future and shows how what happened in the course of the novel got them there.
Favorite Character: For my favorite character I have picked Ramzan's father, Khassan. He definitely does not approve of his son's decision to become an informant. And to really show his disapproval, he takes any of the food Ramzan gets as payment and feeds it to his dogs.
Recommended Reading: While reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena I was reminded of Rutya Sepeteys' historical young adult novel Between Shades of Gray, which tells the story of a Lithuanian family who are forced from their home under Stalin's orders and are taken to the Arctic Circle for a life of hard labor. Two different wars, two different countries, but a lot of the hardship and terror are eerily similiar.