Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Chechnya)

In a snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as her father is abducted in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers. Their life-long friend and neighbour, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa he knows of only one person who might be able to help.

For tough-minded doctor Sonja Rabina, it's just another day of trying to keep her bombed-out, abandoned hospital going. When Akhmed arrives with Havaa, asking Sonja for shelter, she has no idea who the pair are. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja's world will shift on its axis, revealing the intricate pattern of connections that binds these three unlikely companions together and unexpectedly decides their fate.

The book begins with a man named Akmed fleeing from his village in war torn Chechnya in the company of a young girl, his best friends daughter. We learn that the girls father has been taken captive and transported to what the author refers to as the Landfill. This somewhat ominous name conjures up images of mass graves, but as the book progresses we learn that it is in fact an interrogation camp, a roofless prison where the prisoners are kept in deep pits. Most of the the characters in this book have been to the Landfill at some point.

Akmed takes the girl to a nearby hospital, entrusting her to the care of a female surgeon named Sonja, having heard of her surgical skills through his own involvement in the war. Akmed strikes a deal with Sonja that in return for the girls safety, he will work at the hospital, where he is soon assisting with amputations, among other things. As the story of these three characters unfolds, we learn of the interconnecting threads that link them together.

For a first novel (at least first published novel), this is an extraordinary piece of work that grips the imagination and will leave the reader pondering as to the nature of war, life and death for many days.

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