For a first-time novelist, Anthony Marra has a lot going for him. Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Marra holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Pushcart Prize and the Narrative Prize. If that isn’t enough to convince you of Marra’s extraordinary talents, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has already been awarded the 2012 Whiting Writers’ Award.
Set in contemporary Chechnya—a republic in southern Russia—the novel opens with 8-year-old Havaa hiding in the freezing-cold forest. She is forced to witness the burning down of her home and the abduction of her fingerless father by Russian soldiers. When Havaa’s father’s lifelong friend and neighbor Akhmed discovers her, he decides that the only guarantee for her safety is to take her to a physician he has only heard rumors about: Dr. Sonja Rabina.
For Sonja, her day-to-day life is a furious routine of staying hopped up on methamphetamines, running the town’s bombed-out hospital and desperately searching for her heroin-addicted sister, Natasha. Akhmed—a doctor as well, although his passion lies in portraiture—offers his assistance to Sonja, in exchange for her harboring Havaa. The Russians have already begun hunting down the girl, and Akhmed has sworn to protect her, for reasons deeper than Sonja initially suspects.
Marra delicately weaves together several narratives against the backdrop of this bleak, war-ravaged country. Over five days filled with dying rebels, mysterious black-market con men, friends-turned-traitors and ghostly visitors, Marra allows the stories of Sonja, Natasha, Akhmed and Havaa’s father to intersect in incredibly imaginative ways. Readers will become convinced that each subsequent piece in the puzzle of Marra’s narrative is not coincidence but surely must be fate.
If you’re a fan of beautifully composed, internationally set fiction like The Tiger’s Wife or The Orphan Master’s Son, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a worthy next pick. The Whiting Writers’ Award selection committee dubbed Marra’s ambitions “Tolstoyan,” and there could not be a better word to describe his all-too-real cast of characters. This is an exquisite debut.