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Book Talk: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.”

If Marra’s future books are as beautiful as this debut novel, I hope he’ll write hundreds.  While I originally read Constellation two years ago, I was even more impressed with Marra’s craft and character development the second time around.

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Spanning the length of 5 days in 2004 Chechnya, this story begins the morning after Havaa, an eight-year-old girl with a mysterious blue suitcase of unnamed “souvenirs” in tow, watches Russian Feds kidnap her father on suspicion of harboring Chechen rebels and burn the only home she’s ever known to the ground.  Akhmed, her father’s lifelong friend, rescues her from her hiding spot in the woods and decides to take her to the only safe place he can think of.  The unlikely pair travel together to a nearly abandoned hospital in a nearby town in the hopes that it’s lone surgeon, the formidable Sonja Rabina, will take the girl in. 

Little do they know that Sonja, already overworked and exhausted, has a deeply private reason to turn them away.  If she chooses to grant Havaa a safe haven in her hospital, she might also risk threatening the return of her long-missing sister, Natasha.  Against her better judgement Sonja agrees to watch over Havaa, on the condition that Akhmed assist her with the never-ending work of running the dilapidated hospital.  While their arrangement temporarily protects Havaa from the Feds, the threat of her discovery grows with each passing day.

I know in my bones that I’ll return to this book many times in my life.  Before reading it, I had never known about the horrors of the centuries long Chechen-Russian conflict, nor of the two Chechen Wars in the 90’s and early 00’s.  The author paints this history unapologetically and leaves the reader with feelings of rage, joy, heartbreak, and hope all at once.  Marra is a genius at forming subtle connections between both characters and events with his use intricate and vivid details that thread themselves throughout the story.  This book is a constantly unfolding treasure that should be required reading.

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