Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra covers an eventful 5 days in 2004 during the Russian conflict in Chechnya. Eight-year-old orphan Havaa is rescued by her neighbour Akhmed when her father is 'disappeared.' Akhmed brings her to the only safe place he can think of, a nearly-abandoned hospital, where he asks the lone remaining doctor, curmudgeonly Sonja, to care for her. The story moves back and forth in time as information is revealed about the compelling main characters and how their pasts have brought them to this point.

People struggle to maintain their humanity in a harsh world. Some parts are painfully gritty, but humour and beautiful prose lighten the otherwise tense and somber atmosphere.

"Havaa was studying the pale blue flowers on her mother's skirt, annoyed she couldn't find them in the Caucasian flora guide. Why invent flowers when so many real ones would be honoured to find their faces on a skirt?"

Sonja and a powerful supplier of black market goods have an argument about whether turtles are reptiles or crustaceans:
"Everyone knows a turtle is crustacean on its mother's side."
"Explain that to me," she said.
"A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out. It's called evolution."
"I hope your biology teacher was sent to the gulag," she said.

"He woke early and performed his ablutions and prayers on the trapezoid of dawn light that lay like a prayer rug on the floor."

Using brief flash-forwards, Marra fleshes out secondary characters with random details from their futures. An example is the one-armed guard at the hospital: "In Ingushetia he had an eleven-year-old daughter he didn't know about, who was waiting for him to call. In two and a half years, he would hear her voice for the first time." The effect reinforces the feeling that everything is interconnected and that everyone is contained within the circle of life and death.

The title is taken from a definition found in a medical dictionary: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena -- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." Marra's debut novel is gorgeous, expansive, and ultimately uplifting.

Readalikes: Between Shades of Grey (Ruta Sepetys); Purge (Sofi Oksanen); The Lizard Cage (Karen Connelly) ; and The Tiger's Wife (Tea Obreht).

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