A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Marra)

Allow me to join the crowd. What a magnificent novel. Oddly, I wanted to resist its pull. I was concerned that it was gaining acclaim simply because it was the first novel set in Chechnya (at least that I know of) and was earning praise because of its “firstness” rather than its quality.

I held out for about 70. And then came the description of Akhmed’s first amputation, a masterpiece of prose and central to what was quickly becoming an amazingly well-constructed and delicate story that moves back and forth between two wars. “Delicate” is an odd word, I know, considering the time and place of this story, but I think it’s right. Marra stitches the story together carefully, precariously – once he even uses dental floss. (I will never forget this image.)

Though the novel is a kind of epic, the characters are few, and this allows Marra to develop them well. These are people caught up in amazing circumstances. Our protagonists are deeply flawed, and the antagonists are incredibly human. There is humor and hope. The hope has its origins in two places – in stories and in art. The art that Akhmed creates and the mural that Natasha creates (with help from the two nurses who are sisters).

An absolute masterpiece.

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