Marra's debut novel is set during the Second Chechen War, and concerns the life of a little girl named Havaa, after her father is taken by Russian soldiers. After his removal, a neighbor, Akhmed, brings her to a local hospital, trusting a doctor, Sonia, with her safekeeping. What initially attracted me to the book was the subject. I knew virtually nothing about Chechnya or the two wars that spanned the last 20 years. We heard rumblings about the region when the Boston bombers were identified as ethnically Chechen; previously, the region had scarcely come up on my radar.
Marra's novel is certainly an exercise in tone. The book is murky, things are done in secret, and the plot is generally hazy. Certainly, the author was conjuring the feeling of being an innocent Chechen at the time of the conflict. In addition, the continual shifts between past and present contribute to the general confusion in the setting. For the characters central to the novel, life is a continual process of change and adjustment, with family and friends constantly disappearing, some to never return. However, as a result, the details of the story are somewhat obscured. Marra does continually intertwine the elements of the various character's stories, but given the general obfuscation of the setting, this literary handiwork feels contrived. For me, beyond the general sense of the dire circumstances and psychological trauma that these conflicts brought about, I take away little else. While the characters were distinct, and even relatable, I do not think these are personalities that will stay with me unfortunately. I wanted more from this book, and I think perhaps would benefit from a rereading. But, to be honest, I probably won't pick this one up again, I'm accepting the tone and haziness of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena as my key takeaway.