This book did not work for me. It’s being hailed as a great literary debut, with readers rhapsodizing about it right and left, and I don’t take issue with the writing style, but the characters and their stories failed to engage me.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (that's a mouthful!) is set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004. The main storyline concerns a child (Havaa) being hunted by security forces after her father is disappeared; her neighbor (Akhmed) attempts to rescue her by handing her over to a doctor (Sonja) in a nearby city. This frame story takes place over only five days, but the book also makes extensive use of flashbacks to show how all the characters got to their current situations, as well as jumping ahead (sometimes by decades) to relay what will happen to characters in the future. And there are several secondary characters with whom the book spends quite a bit of time, as well as a plethora of minor characters whose life stories are told in brief asides.
I’m not going to say this is a bad book. Reading about Chechnya and life during wartime was interesting, and the writing is good. Despite the title, it’s not overwritten or pretentious, though it is a book that leans more heavily on writing style than plot, and if you’re not a fan of long, comma-laden sentences it may not be for you. To me though, this came across as such a stereotypical MFA novel: strong on the mechanics but leaving me cold; rather too artsy and constructed. The characters never came to life, whether because too much is simply told or alluded to in flashback rather than shown, or because of the rather flowery and contrived dialogue, or because it jumps around too much in time and among the characters (usually a style I enjoy).
In the end, all the main characters seemed less than the sum of their parts. Akhmed is a nice guy who’d rather be an artist than a doctor, and that’s about all there is to him. Havaa is supposed to be 8 years old, but reads more like a mature 13. Sonja.... I don’t even know. She’s the type of character I’m inclined to love--the brusque, uber-competent female professional--but Marra never got me invested in this particular character. I was actually more interested in her sister Natasha, but the book skims the surface of Natasha’s story even faster than it does everyone else’s. Almost as if Marra felt like he had to stick that rape and human trafficking stuff in there, but wasn’t really comfortable dealing with it. (But maybe that’s unfair; the book skims over everybody’s story pretty fast.) And back to the artsiness, basic questions about the plot and the characters’ relationships are never satisfactorily answered: for instance, does Sonja know what happened to Natasha the first time she disappeared? Why do Sonja and Akhmed hook up, aside from the fact that the male protagonist and the female protagonist in fiction always do? Why can’t the Feds find Havaa simply by following Akhmed or asking around in the city (she seems to do a lot of hanging around public areas of the hospital and socializing with the staff)?
Finally, I would have liked to see more of Chechen culture. There’s one interesting scene dealing with a ritual in the mountains, but although there's some great visual detail, culturally the book could be set in any war-torn place. Toward the end, a female character isn’t searched at a checkpoint because the soldiers take her for “a traditional Chechen woman,” which threw me for a loop because in the preceding 340 pages there’s no evidence of restraint in the interactions between the sexes, even among the villagers. We know it’s a Muslim country because every now and then someone prays. I love to travel the world through fiction, but I want some reassurance that my guide actually knows the place (Marra studied in Russia, but it’s unclear to me whether he’s ever set foot in Chechnya).
In the end, I may have been a little harsh with this one; it didn’t do anything for me, but so many people have loved it that there’s a good chance it will work for you. You could do worse than picking up this nicely written book, which if nothing else will raise your awareness about a little-known part of the world.