There are debut novelists and then may be after reading him I can safely say that there is Anthony Marra. This is after reading his book, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and the fact that I could not stop sighing and being spectacularly amazed by most of his writing as the pages were turned. The writing does not seem as though it belongs to a debut writer or maybe I am just underestimating debut writers, but this one is sure to look out for. For one, no one or maybe very few people would have heard of the Chechen wars before reading this book. It was certainly an eye-opener for me and I can only thank Anthony enough for introducing me to this side of the world as well.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is not going to be an easy read. It is not even a happy read as far as I am concerned. It has its moments of happiness and then it gets quite dreary. What does one expect of a novel told in the time of war and unrest? Well, for most things, one expects humanity and Marra delivers like a charm with reference to that expectation, thereby not only fulfilling but also surpassing it.
The book passes through or rather is told through a decade – from 1996 to 2004 and speaks of lives that were embroiled during the Chechen War, with the Russian History but of course making an appearance time and again in the book. The history of Chechnya is long and often confusing. Anthony Marra on the other hand, does not give us complete details of the land. Instead he chooses to talk about ordinary lives and the impact of ethnic strife on them and how their lives change beyond recognition. This worked with me as a reader on most levels. I guess all readers want to know more of the humane side of the story than anything else and Marra most certainly delivers on that one.
In this hard-hitting novel, Anthony takes us back and forth in the lives of the major characters, surrounded by the secondary characters that are equally integral to the plot and structure. There is Akhmed, an incompetent doctor with a big heart and an invalid wife, Sonja, a surgeon who labours each and every day at a bombed hospital and living with her own demons, and Havaa an eight-year old girl who has lost her family and is now about to start a new life. Centered around these are the other characters that make up the entire concept of Six Degrees of Separation that runs strongly throughout the book.
The cycle of life is seen through the book – birth, changes, adaptation, movement, growth and sometimes death is what holds the book strong. Marra’s writing is surreal and often had me wonder: Where did the stories come from? What is the deal with the plot? The title in itself is intriguing and as you move through the novel, you understand its importance. The novel is intense and deep and yet the moments of compassion are plenty that take you by surprise. After all, sometimes all one needs is compassion to get one through in times of uncertainty and a war-torn land and a heart that needs much more. The emotional highs are plenty and that is precisely why I was urging everyone to read this book. It may be dark and depressing in places, but for me, it filled my heart with joy in most places. A must read.