You need a strong memory to love the dead

We have grown apart, she thought. She’d gone on without him. She would have sat next to him and peeled the apple and she would have felt like his mother. The dead are not individuals, she thought. They are all the same. That’s what made it so very hard to stay in love with them. Like men who enter prison and are stripped of their worldly possessions, clothes, jewellery, the dead were stripped of who they were. Nothing ever happened to them, they did not change or grow, but they didn’t stay the same either. They are not the same as they were when they were alive, Helen thought.
The act of being dead, if you could call it an act, made them very hard to love. They’d lost the capacity to surprise. You needed a strong memory to love the dead, and it was not her fault that she was failing. She was trying. But no memory was that strong. This was what she knew now: no memory was that strong.

February by Lisa Moore

The present dissolving into the past

The present is always dissolving into the past, he realized long ago. The present dissolves. It gets used up. The past is virulent and ravenous and everything can be devoured in a matter of seconds.

That’s the enigma of the present. The past has already infiltrated it; the past has set up camp, deployed soldiers with toothbrushes to scrub away all of the now, and the more you think about it, the faster everything dissolves. There is no present. There was no present. Or, another way to think about it: your life could go on without you.

February by Lisa Moore

Something slower and less dignified

The poor young waitress behind the bar — she tried so hard to look like there was nothing strange about Helen. She tried to look like she had never in her life heard of loneliness or decay or rot or maggots or something slower and less dignified, this middle-aged need to touch someone.

February by Lisa Moore

Always one shoe. Gone.

This is what Helen has learned: it is possible to be so tired you cannot reach for the sky, you cannot breathe. You can’t even talk. You can’t pick up the phone. You can’t do a dish or dance or cook or do up your own zipper. The children make such a racket. They slam around. They play music on bust or they lie on the couch watching soap operas. They fight and smash things and lose their virginity or they lose their way. They need money and they need to borrow the car. One shoe is always missing. You go through the bookbags, you go through the closet; always one shoe. Gone.

February by Lisa Moore

Don’t give that much

How foolish his parents were to love like that. How foolish to have so many children. They had no money. He wants to ask his mother, What were you thinking? Didn’t you know what you were getting into? Why did you love each other so very much? It destroyed you. Don’t give that much, he wants to say. People don’t have to give that much. How foolish to keep going.

February by Lisa Moore

Anna Karenina

She’d gone into the glass booth of the station to pay and the young man behind the counter was reading Anna Karenina and he turned the book over on the counter regretfully. She saw the big Russian saga drain out of his eyes as he took her in. Helen and the smell of gasoline and a freezing gust of wind.

February by Lisa Moore

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. In Anthony Marra’s magnificent novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it takes a village to save a child from Federal assassination during the second Chechen war.

The book opens with Akmed, a failed physician, and an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, overlooking the smouldering remains of her modest home, burned to the ground the previous night by the Feds, who abduct her father to a torture camp called the Landfill.

Man and girl, Akhmed and Havaa become a family forged by fire — made but not chosen. Knowing the Feds will return for Havaa, Akhmed takes her 11 kilometres to the safest place he knows, to Hospital Number 6 in Volchansk. There Akhmed appeals to Sonja to harbour Havaa in exchange for his labour. Sonja, a brilliant prodigal surgeon, abandoned London to return to Volchansk at the start of the first Chechen war in a bid to find her sister Natasha, the only living member of her family.

This is a beautiful book that explores families made but not chosen: from Akhmed and Havaa, to Sonja and Natasha, two sisters — one brilliant, one beautiful — who struggle to express love for one another, to six formerly domestic, now feral dogs whose pack leader, Khassan, is a taciturn former university professor and father of the local informer.

This is a community of people “whittled by the deprivations” of war, corroded by betrayal, guilt, guilt by association, and shame, yet somehow humanity survives. This book is definitely worth your time. Be prepared for your soul to be touched, for your own humanity to be forever altered on reading it.

I’m grateful to my friend Erik Westra for recommending I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I read it twice, back-to-back, savouring the story told in plain, yet beautiful language. It’s a masterpiece of a novel I will never forget.

January and February, 2014

The humanity to find war incomprehensible

Akhmed’s head hummed with the shock of how not shocked he was. What Ramzan said made sense to him. He understood why the Feds would want to kill a child. Accompanying that understanding was a second, equally shameful recognition: this incomprehensible war would take from him even the humanity to find it incomprehensible.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Maali’s death; Natasha’s breaking point

When the field commander departed, and the double doors swung closed, Natasha returned to the maternity ward almost believing the war had left with him. Six days later the Feds would enter the city. They would launch a single mortar round at the hospital in retaliation for sheltering rebels. That round would hit the fourth-floor storage room. Maali would be searching for clean sheets. She would land atop the rubble, four floors below, her pulse slowing in her wrist. A syringe would be prepared and half injected, but death would relieve Maali’s pain before the drug took effect, and the senseless, screaming world would go quiet when Natasha slipped that same syringe between her toes, and with a push of the plunger, sent Maali’s blood into her own.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra