Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“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.” 

The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is Constellationhaunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.

The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.

The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience.  The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.

In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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