A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra's dazzlingly good first novel is set in Chechnya under the vicious rule of the Russians. It begins when eight-year-old Havaa wakes the morning after "the Feds" burned her house and took her father. A neighbor, Akhmed, finds the girl hiding in the forest with the packed suitcase her father had told her always to keep ready. They step out into the cold and snow, walking to the hospital in Volchansk; the city looked like it was "made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child." Here he meets Sonja Andreyevna Rabina, a surgeon, the last of a staff of 500, living on pills, as devastated as her hospital. Akhmed, a barely capable doctor in his village, can help her.
The novel takes place over five days, but the telling weaves in and out of the past eight years. Marra slowly unfolds his story with a balanced sureness and subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming. Although it's sometimes horrific, it's also beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital "human matter" of life. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher