Go ahead and sneer at the thin atmosphere of America’s MFA programs, but this Washington-born graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a testament to the vibrancy of contemporary fiction. Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists. They aren’t particularly religious or political; we see only glimpses of loyal Russian officers or fanatical Muslims. Instead, these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history.
The book begins with a sentence that forecasts both the horror and the whimsy ahead: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, we learn, is 8 and now almost certainly orphaned. “She had the pale, waxen skin of an unripe pear,” Marra writes. Her father, who nurtured her curiosity with extravagant affection, was an arborist who had lost his fingers in a previous encounter with the Feds and a pair of bolt cutters. When he was gagged with duct tape and bundled away for good, Havaa avoided assassination by sneaking out of the house and hiding in the snow. But those thugs will be back, fulfilling a new order to murder the family members of anyone suspected of sympathizing with rebel forces.
The complicated moral hero of this tale is an incompetent peasant doctor named Akhmed, who lives across the street. More comfortable drawing portraits than blood, he is determined to save his old friend’s daughter, though “she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail.” His only choice is to spirit Havaa out of the village, where the sole remaining career choices are running guns for the rebels or informing for the Russians. Acting on a rumor from a refugee who passed through months earlier, he takes Havaa to an all-but-abandoned hospital in a nearby town that looks “like a city made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child.”
On one level, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together. Each chapter begins with the date highlighted on a timeline that runs from 1994 to 2004, jumping forward and backward, sometimes creating new mysteries, sometimes solving old ones.