“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
~ Anthony Marra
“War” books are often tedious. They lurch from violence to violence, running rough shod over the people they purport to represent.
They overgeneralize, seeking meaning among the chaos. Rarely are they content to sit amongst the absurdity and just wonder. (Exceptions, as there always are: Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried)
Over the past year, however, I’ve read some truly incredible fiction dealing with life in war – not sensationalized death.
This past week I dove into Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and I still haven’t fully come out. Set in Chechnya, it centers around two doctors sheltering Havaa, a young girl whose father has been taken by the “Feds” and her house destroyed.
The tale is peopled with endlessly compelling, complex and vivid characters. Throughout, Marra filters in ruminations born within the specifically nonsensical violence of their surroundings.
“Invader and invaded held on to their fistfuls of earth, but in the end, the earth outlived the hands that held it.”
And, as it takes place in a Russian-influenced zone, a touch of the bizarre I’ve come to expect when reading about any culture under its domain: “A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out. It’s called evolution.”
However you read this novel, from a deep knowledge of this conflict-rife region or a novice, Marra captures the reader with characters who reach across suffering, across unfathomable conditions, and finds relatable ground.
More than most, his words still linger with me, as we all continue our baffled, confusing, painful, absurd journey toward meaning.
“There was a time when she had indulged in the hypothetical for hours a day, plotting the map that had led her here. But no life is a line, and hers was an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb, searching for the light it once held.”