In Anthony Marra’s spectacular first novel, six people of varying ages must cope with the barbarity of the Second Chechen War. Over five days in 2004, they experience terrible brutality, with some exhibiting remarkable determination and kindness in the face of danger. The book’s dust jacket justifiably describes “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” as a “majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.”
The Soviet Union came apart in 1991. Chechnya was the only one of 88 “federal subjects” that did not agree to a treaty governing its relationship with the new Russian government. Instead, Chechnya declared its independence, and in 1994 Russian forces invaded. This led to the First Chechen War, in which guerillas fought the occupiers to a standstill. By the time the parties signed a peace agreement in 1996, 100,000 civilians had died. The fighting left cities and villages in ruins.
The Second Chechen War began in 1999, when radical Chechens invaded neighboring Dagestan (a republic of Russia). Russia stormed into Chechnya again, establishing direct rule in 2000, but guerilla resistance continued. By 2009, hostilities had significantly decreased, and the Russians withdrew. However, by then 25,000 to 50,000 more civilians had died or disappeared.
The dramatic nature of “A Constellation” is apparent from the first sentence: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” She is eight years old. Her father had provoked the authorities by permitting hundreds of refugees to stay at his house on their way to join the rebels in the mountains or to head for exile in Dagestan. He had been prepared for his arrest and sent Havaa out the back as Russian soldiers broke down the front door. She survived by hiding in the woods.
Akhmed is the neighbor who rescues her. He thinks of himself as the worst doctor in Chechnya but the best portraitist. He takes Havaa to the partially bombed hospital in the nearby city, where he encounters Sonja, an impersonal and tough-minded doctor. She has returned from England to work without pay as one of two people running a hospital previously staffed by 500. Against Sonja’s better judgment, they make a deal: Havaa will stay at the hospital, and in return Akhmed will assist with patients. At night Akhmed returns home to his wife, who is bedridden, presumably because of the psychological effects of the war.
Marra introduces and develops his characters by making skillful and frequent use of flashback chapters. Each is centered on one character, and, in combination, the flashbacks reveal the intricate connections among them all. These recollections usually go back to the first war, and, through the author’s careful unfolding, we learn about the circumstances that have led the characters to these five days.
Sonja is an ethnic Russian who grew up in Chechnya. An extraordinarily motivated and successful student, she received a medical fellowship to study in England. Her soul has been hardened and overburdened by the challenges she faces every day at the hospital. Her patients’ medical problems arise from the hardship of war, including frequent trauma from land mines. (She has performed so many amputations with a hand saw that her right hand is as calloused as a laborer’s.) Although it has been a long time since anyone has depended on her for something other than medical expertise, Sonja’s responsibility for Havaa’s survival reawakens her warmth as a human being.
Natasha, Sonja’s beautiful sister, disappeared after the first war, for reasons she doesn’t want to talk about. She returned and helped at the hospital but seemed to have symptoms of post–traumatic stress disorder.
A year before Akhmed’s arrival at the hospital, Natasha disappears again. Sonja is determined to find her and is amazed to learn that Havaa may have been one of the last people to see her sister.
Khassan is Akhmed’s neighbor and long-time friend. Much of the novel’s drama stems from the fact that Khassan’s son, Ramzan, has been informing on his fellow villagers for the Russian occupiers. He does this for self-preservation and to help provide for his father, but the impact is substantial and grim. No one is safe. Ramzan persists in asking where Havaa has gone, and Akhmed assumes it was Ramzan’s informing that led to the girl’s father’s abduction.
The book’s title comes from a definition in a medical dictionary: “Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” Marra has said, “As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.” The biological constellation that constitutes life is obviously a complex one. So are the relationships among the characters in this novel. Reading it is a gripping experience.