Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

This novel by the young writer, Anthony Marra, is an incredibly beautifully written story about a part of the world I knew little about.  Set in a small village in Chechnya, the story revolves around eight year old Havaa who, following the death of her mother, watches her father get abducted by Russian soldiers who accuse him of aiding Chechen rebels.  She is found by Akhmed, a friend of her father's who lives across the street with his invalid wife.  Akhmed takes her to a nearby town and leaves her with Sonja, the only remaining doctor at an abandoned hospital.  Akhmed, who is the self-professed worst doctor in Chechnya, has heard of her work from refugees passing through his village.

The story moves back and forth from the present day (2004) to the first Chechen war approximately 10 years before and many points in between.  We learn the sad tale of Sonja who was a medical student in London but returns following the first war to help her sister Natasha.  Natasha tried to reach London but was abducted by a prostitution ring and controlled by heroin until she manages to escape and return home to Sonja.  She looks like she will rebound until further tragedy strikes and she disappears.  But not before she delivers Havaa, forever joining her to Havaa's family, which Sonja eventually learns from an elderly neighbour, Khassan, who is fighting his own demons, primarily in the form of his son who is an informant for the Russian army responsible for turning in his neighbours, including Havaa's father and eventually Akhmed.

I liked the little device of starting every chapter with a timeline so we always knew whether we were reading about past or current events.  The descriptions of the complex history of Chechnya are fascinating.  And the characters are so well developed I could sympathize with all of them at one point or another - I could even understand the horrible events that lead the informant to turn against his friends.

I definitely recommend this book - though you have to be in the right frame of mind.  Though the flow of the language is amazing, emotionally it's not an easy read.

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