The morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.
The moment after I read the opening line of A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena I sensed this was the beginning of a beautiful journey.
I was neither exactly right nor dead wrong.
For one thing, a very powerful topic is a very powerful topic. And it’s the Chechen-Russian conflict in this case, with a timeline that runs from the early years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split, to 2004, so it would take actual effort for this book to read even somewhat boring; it doesn't of course. The story is fascinating.
Moreover, Anthony Marra easily ticks most (not all and I'll explain why later on) of the relevant boxes in the “new talented kid around the writers’ block” checklist: his prose is
and, occasionally, skilfully drizzled with poetry, so:
4. and check
(no box ticking on the poetry thing; it’s an extra).
On the other hand, he overuses one of those pro-spoiler literary techniques that I find absolutely irritating and that I’ll describe through a hypothetical example that I’ll make up right now: “They looked at each other with hope for the future. How could they know that in five years time, one of them would suffer the loss of the other. One of them would face the most painful of deaths. But who would that be was impossible to foresee at that time of happiness”.
Thanks, but no thanks Anthony. And that’s on top of the back-and-forth-in-time core structure of the book, which by the way felt a little choppy to me, in the sense that even though each chapter flows smoothly, the connection between the 90s and the 00s is not seamless enough.
Most importantly, what I felt was the major hitch in this book was that it doesn't provide a convincing enough insight into the geographical and historical context of the events that it describes. Historical fiction needs to be self-contained to make sense, but A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena doesn't satisfactorily orient the reader through the specific circumstances of the Chechen wars.
I am perfectly aware that the author drew from several sources on Chechnya and modern Russia, as well as descriptions and insights into wartime Grozny and even took the time to visit Chechnya himself, but this is just not coming through the book. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a very moving story about ordinary people trying to pick up the pieces in the course and the aftermath of a war that could take place absolutely anywhere.
And that’s exactly why he ticks most of the boxes and not all of them. Not because of the lack of self-containment per se. But because he did take context into account, he did his research, he got the insight and still, he didn't manage to transfuse this knowledge through his writing.
Of course, this doesn't abolish my praise of Anthony Marra's talent above. A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena is a good book on the frailty of the human spirit and one that I’ll remember. Just not one that I couldn't have lived without. In any case, I’m definitely keeping an eye on what Anthony Marra does next. Something less depressing hopefully, but even if it’s still to be a post-war story, I’ll take it.
Who wins? The Americans or the Russians?
“Both”, his father said, glancing to the frost-filled windowpane.
“Then who loses?”