A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra's stunning, dazzlingly good first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is set in Chechnya in 2004, a place suffering horribly under the brutal rule of Russia. The novel begins when an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, wakes the morning after "the Feds" have burned her house and taken her father away. A neighbor, Akhmed, finds the girl hiding in the forest, sitting on the already packed suitcase her father had told her always to keep by her door. They must leave before the Feds return; they step out into the cold and snow and begin walking, careful to avoid mines.

He takes her to the hospital in Volchansk where Akhmed was born; the city looked as though it were "made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child." Here he meets Sonja Andreyevna Rabina, an ethnic Russian and an accomplished surgeon, the last of a staff of 500; she has amputated 1,643 legs. Living on pills, she's 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, as Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us. He 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. It may be the best new novel you'll read this year. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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