Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


“No one can take what’s inside your head once it’s there” (Havaa)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is: Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.(taken from Goodreads)

While reading this book, I was acutely aware of how incredibly fortunate I am to live in this country. I will never, ever be awoken in the night to find my family members brutally taken without warning or without cause, find my house burned down, my family hunted, the inability to trust anyone I speak with at any given time, nor will I ever experience what it feels like to cross the street ducking and hiding from sniper fire, I will never experience great hunger and desperation in any way and most certainly never in the manner that the people of Chechnya do in their every dayof existence. This existence is so foreign but is one that is occurring right now, in this century and only in the past few years in Chechnya. What A Constellation of Vital Phenomena achieved so greatly was to vividly express an existence so bleak and filled with such despair it becomes a great wonder how they continue living. Existing would only be the word that comes to mind, for living cannot really be what they are doing.

Marra does write with skill and profound beauty. He is very adept at showing the despair, helplessness but also the strength of the people in Chechnya and in their fight to maintain some form of dignity and to continue on, even where dignity cannot be found for as far as the eye can see. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena also beautifully demonstrated how far reaching our connectivity truly is. For this demonstration, Marra shines. Slowly and surely he reveals the connections between the main characters in this story and it was a delight to see it unfold.

However, I would be lying if I told you I was riveted to every page in this book and that this was one of the best books of the year I’ve read. Because it wasn’t. I know, I am very aware of  the abundant 4- and 5-star ratings for this book on Goodreads, I’ve read those reviews and this most certainly was a book we gleefully whooped in delight over when Random House Canada sent it to us for review. Yet, something about it just didn’t “do it” for me. It certainly wasn’t the writing – Marra is a beautiful writer. It also wasn’t how he slowly alternated the story over the timeline appearing at the top of each chapter, and unveiled the connections between all the characters – that too was beautifully done. What was it then? Why did I feel no compulsion to sit and read? Perhaps it was the characters. For the most part I was bored to tears with them and their stories.  The only one from the bunch I found truly fascinating was the despised informer, Ramzan. His story and his reasons for doing what he felt he had to do kept me drawn to the pages. That and in the very end reading of the fate of Havaa’s father. The others, and most definitely Sonja, were ones that drew only boredom. Therefore, it receives a 3.5 star rating from me and the knowledge that I am in the very deep minority for that grade.

Again, thank you to Random House Canada for affording us the opportunity to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It is now being handed over to Elizabeth. She was the one that was very excited for this one and I’m hoping perhaps she’ll have a better time with it than I did.

Below are some disturbing photos that show how the people of Chechnya are surviving following two wars in a very short time-period. The beauty of reading today means that I can have the internet at my finger tips to search and discover more and in addition to what is being written. (Photos taken from The Atlantic.)
war 2 Russia C  Chechnya  Breakaway   People  Children war 4