A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I’m glad I’ve read this book. There is no doubt that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a significant achievement. Surrounding five days in the life of a little girl, Havaa, who loses her father in a late night Russian raid, we follow a few men and women connected by her village in Chechnya as the war for independence unravels and remakes them, creating a book as much about the nature of family as war. ‘You are mine. I recognise you. We twist our souls around each other’s miseries. It is that which makes us family.’ (p307)

Akhmed, Havaa’s neighbour and the local doctor, wants to save Havaa from her father’s fate and takes her to the city hospital where he’s heard of a female doctor, the only name outside the village he knows. Sonja, the only doctor and surgeon left at the hospital, begrudgingly takes Havaa in creating another event in a series of phenomena that slowly form a constellation, a connection between these people that projects some kind of life or hope into the future. ‘Life’ being what the title of the novel describes in one of Sonja’s medical text books, and something that Sonja’s sister, Natasha, circles in red as she attempts to make a life for herself in the ruins of her city.

Both Natasha and Akhmed are artists of disappearance. Akhmed is better at drawing portraits of remembered dead than he is of healing the sick and Natasha creates a mural in the hospital that recreates the city skyline before war turned it to rubble. The art is pleasing – early anatomists were artists – but there is something in the neatness of these artistic expressions that holds true of the whole novel. There is an all-seeing authorial voice, whose authority – phrases like ‘She would die at the age of one hundred and three’ or ‘In sixteen years, when glass replaced the plywood boards’ or ‘three days after Dokka disappeared, when Ramzan closed the satellite phone and ended the last of the three conversations he would have with the Cossack colonel’ – is both pleasing and faintly reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres, and unnerving: the possibility of neatly tied endings feels as full of the magical realism that Marquez and Bernieres have and Marra lacks. Could it be that Marra’s authority is consciously reminiscent of magical realism? That is, mocks it’s own certainty? The sense of an over-arching narrative that makes sense of it all is poignantly fiction’s domain and perhaps I’m more of a fan of the messy ending, even if it is strangely less brave.

I would recommend this book and I admire it, but even though it had me weeping in parts, I think I prefer something messier, something more raw. Then again, it could just be my jealousy talking. I can’t claim anything so accomplished as my first novel.

Next week I’m reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias and the week after I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey. Feel free to send in suggestions.