Friday, May 24, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It's not uncommon for friends in the book business to send me a care package full of books, bless their hearts. They'll send books they know I'd like, some of the hot titles for a particular season, and suggest a few others they are especially enamored with. Few events make my day more than this.  It is, after all, a box(!) full(!) of new books(!). And what is better than a box full of new books?  Damn near nothing.

At the top of the last care package were two that had post-its on them, The Dinner by Herman Koch, which I ended up hating (sorry, 'Chele), and this, which I loved and won't shut up about. 

This stunning debut takes place in Chechnya and has only half a dozen characters. It meanders back and forth over the ten years of the first and second wars that left the country desolate and broken though via flashbacks and memories of some of the characters, it goes back even further in Chechnya's twisted history.  

The setup is simple: in the middle of the night, Dokka is taken away and his house burned to the ground, for what we're not certain. He has prepared his eight year-old daughter, Havaa, with an already packed suitcase, who hides and escapes capture. Our main character, Akhmed, Dokka's lifelong friend and neighbor, finds her and tries to secure for her a safe place in a land with few safe places left. A failed doctor himself, he takes Havaa to a sad, nearly abandoned hospital that has only one doctor, one nurse and a one-armed security guard on staff. He makes a plea to Sonja, the flinty, worn-out doctor, to keep Havaa there and a deal that he will work there if she will consent.

Marra's writing is elegant and funny despite the constant brutality he describes. He makes me laugh like Jonathan Safran Foer did in his debut, Everything Is IlluminatedHis prose sings and is reminiscent of Leif Enger in its beauty.  For example, he describes Akhmed taking care of his long-ailing wife, Ula, this way: "He was losing her incrementally. It might be a few stray brown hairs listless on the pillow, or the crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind the headboard or a dark shape dissolving in soap. As a net is no more than holes tied together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.

It is a masterful work made even moreso by being the first from the author. If I haven't summarized or described this book well enough to intrigue you, please dismiss my writerly inabilities and seek out this novel for yourself. Better still, you may read an excerpt here:


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