“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
War and its aftermath, lives and their destruction, land and its carnage, and the people who are left behind to try to pick up the pieces of lives trying to hold on to something, anything that will prove that you are more than the carbon you leave behind. Akhmed, Khassan, Ramzan, Dokka, Sonja, Natasha, Havaa, these are all the main characters of Mr Marra’s powerful novel. They, in their lives, their words, and their actions show us the brutality of what they suffered under the ruinous Russian rule. They become real to us, like family members that we ache to touch, to help, knowing that they live in a war torn country and knowing all our need to be with them can never be.
The multidimensional nature of all the characters shed light on a conflict that regrettably so, I knew little of. The novel spans ten years, telling the story of three families who were neighbors in Eldar, as well as two sisters who lived in Volchansk. As the story starts, we meet Dokka and his daughter, Haava. Dokka is being taken to the Landfill and his neighbor Akhmed, a somewhat failed medical student almost doctor, takes Haava to safety to Volchansk where he encounters Sonja, the only surgeon to whom he makes his case to allow both he and Haava a sanctuary for Haava, a mere eight year old, will become the next to die if not protected. Sonja acquiesces knowing that she needs help, any help, even it it comes in the form of a semi doctor who graduated in the bottom of his class. Sonja herself is searching, searching for her sister, Natasha, gone missing for two years.
Haava has a suitcase that contains souvenirs of a sort that she has collected from people who have passed through her home on their way to finding a better life if such is to be had. Within that suitcase lies a key to Natasha, but that key is not revealed until the novel’s conclusion.
There are other sad poignant characters we meet like Khassan and his informant son, Ramzen, who were neighbors of Akmed. Khassan does everything he thinks he needs to do in order to save his father’s life, including much needed insulin. Father and son are at odds with one another and have not spoken in months and it is through Ramzen and his actions that the story that Mr Marra tells is set in motion.
This was not an easy story to read. There were so many levels of understanding, so many multi directional paths that were taken that one needed full concentration of the task of reading a novel that was so well constructed it made the reader an integral part of the story. The scenes depicted were brutal and raw, the lives that were lost were beyond tragic, the story so interwoven that it demanded one’s constant attention. “We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” Truly in this novel, Mr Marra does indeed show us exactly who we are.
ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.