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

Natasha’s murals

In sixteen years, when glass replaced the plywood boards, Natasha’s murals would find their way to Sonja’s bedroom closet, where they would remain a private treasure for some sixty-three years, until Maali’s great-great-grandson, an art historian, put them on display in the city art museum.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Life: a constellation of vital phenomena

She flipped through the book and found answers to questions no sane person would ever ask. The definition of a foot. The average length of a femur. Nothing for insanity by grief, or insanity by loneliness, or insanity by reading reference books.

Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Sonja didn’t believe in small talk

She studied while they ate, paying more attention to diseases of the digestive system than to her dinner. Natasha tried to construct conversation with scraps of the day: Did you see the car accident on Lenin Square? What classes did you have today? But Sonja didn’t believe in small talk and answered in monosyllables, a fact Natasha would remember when, sitting at the same table four and three-quarter years later, Sonja tried to convince her of its therapeutic qualities.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Common decency

She shook her head and glared at him with complete disdain.
“Is common decency too much to ask?”
“Excuse me?” she said, but he knew she couldn’t claim affront. Common decency was the one thing he had that she didn’t, and he held on to it as a rare, improbable triumph.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra