From the moment I cracked open A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I was hooked. Anthony Marra takes a subject and a place a lot of us don’t know much about—war-ravaged Chechnya in 2004, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union—and, with remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, he keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters.
At the heart of the novel is Sonja, a steely, highly competent doctor who performs endless surgeries and delivers babies in a bombed-out hospital. She reluctantly takes in Akhmed, an unskilled village physician, and an 8-year-old girl named Havaa, both of whom were driven out of their mostly Muslim village by Russian soldiers after Havaa’s father was betrayed by a close friend. Marra creates a specific and riveting world around his characters, expertly revealing the unexpected connections among them.
While Marra doesn’t shy away from the very real conflict of the region, whether describing the scene outside Sonja’s hospital—the wall-less rooms, the massive craters, the rubble—or the paranoia that exists when your neighbor is very often your enemy, this novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted.
Constellation deserves to be on the short list for every major award. Marra brings the wisdom of someone so much older than his 29 years to his first novel. It’s an absolute masterpiece, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for this extraordinarily talented young author. A