A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a recently published novel set in the wake of the brutal and oft-forgotten (at least in western society) Chechen wars. Akhmed, an adorably awkward moralist and unfortunately talentless doctor is in crisis: he needs to take Havaa, the eight-year-old daughter of Akhmed’s friend, and her blue suitcase, to someplace that may remotely resemble what is left of ‘safe’ after her father is abducted by the feds and her home is burnt to the ground. The only place Akhmed knows is an abandoned hospital with one remaining doctor: Sonja Rabina. Sonja is weary and overburdened due to ceaseless labour, and at times forgets that the human nervous system has a purpose other than to feel pain. The lives of these three soon come together to reveal unlikely connections, which in turn unravel the most vital, visceral aspects of the human soul – all amidst unexploded ordnance and lonely cigarettes.
The narrative is largely done in the third person, with certain intricacies executed to utmost perfection: the narrative mostly ‘hangs over’ a specific character each chapter, yet it breaks this character-centric focus to focus philosophically within or without, and reach moments of omniscience that only add to the vivid storytelling in a most Wes Anderson-esque fashion (for lack of a more apt comparison). There are a handful of ‘main characters’, and the reader is slowly exposed to the tragic-yet-beautiful nuance of their struggling lives as the narrative jumps forward and back in time from 1994 through to 2004 (with 2004 being the ‘present’ within the novel) and, like a puzzle, we are able to piece together the undeniable significance of these narrative leaps. Although the novel takes place over the course of a meager five days, Marra’s toiling helps us as readers truly understand and feel the humanity – exposed to both the frailty and importance of every soul in the novel; every soul trapped amidst the rubble of what used to be city blocks.
This novel deserves to be read. It matters not whether this review has been appreciated or not up to this point. It begs to be read. It may help one actualize the frailty and hopeful hopelessness that so many lives entail; it deliberates furiously: what else are we when we die? What do we leave behind? A culmination of our beauty in hope, trust, longing, and wonderful idiosyncrasies. The novel offers a take on being, remaining, suffering, and a definition of life – entire in its scope, whole in its honesty.