Book review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Book by Anthony Marra

It’s hard to say whether now is a great or a terrible time to publish a novel about Chechnya. On the one hand, more Americans than ever before probably know where Chechnya is. On the other, few of them are likely to view Chechens in a particularly favourable light. The Boston bombings—and the Chechen immigrants accused of pulling them off—seem bound to hang over Vital Phenomena. Which is too bad. Set in the Chechen countryside in the war years between 1994 and 2004, the book is strong enough to be judged on its own merits.

Marra, a recent M.F.A. graduate now on a fellowship at Stanford, has pulled off a difficult trick for a debut novelist. His characters occupy a world foreign to his own, yet he makes them believable. The story stretches back over the two Chechen wars, but its main plot spans just five days in 2004. It centres on: Akhmed, the worst doctor in Chechnya; Havaa, a young girl left in his charge after Russian soldiers kidnap her father; and Sonja, a London-trained surgeon drawn back to Chechnya when her sister disappears.

The book encompasses torture, infidelity, heartbreak and human trafficking, but also love, friendship, family and humour. Marra doesn’t gloss over the horrors of the Chechen wars. But he doesn’t dwell either, and despite the subject matter, this is not an exclusively dark book. In his afterword, Marra acknowledges a debt to Michael Ondaatje. Like Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, Vital Phenomena is about the gaps left behind by the forcibly disappeared. It’s a difficult subject for fiction, but one Marra manages with a voice that approaches something like the gauzy beauty of Ondaatje’s prose.

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