50 pages 1 hour read

Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2013

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the 2013 debut novel by American author Anthony Marra. The story, told from an omniscient point of view, begins one morning in 2004 in the small Chechen village of Eldár. The night before, a villager named Dokka was captured and taken by Federalist soldiers, and his house was burned to the ground. Akhmed, Dokka’s good friend who lives across the street, finds Dokka’s eight-year-old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods with a mysterious blue suitcase. Akhmed takes Havaa to a hospital in the nearby town of Volchansk, having heard rumors of a skilled surgeon named Sonja who works there. Akhmed, a village doctor, hopes that he will find work at the hospital and that Sonja will look after Havaa in exchange. Sonja is frustrated at first but reluctantly agrees to the arrangement.

Due to two wars and constant attacks by Federalist soldiers, Volchansk is in ruins, and only three employees remain at the hospital: Sonja, an elderly nurse named Deshi, and a one-armed guard. Sonja is haunted by the disappearance of her sister Natasha. Sonja and Natasha grew up in Volchansk, but Sonja left home as a young woman to pursue a medical fellowship in London. By the time Sonja returned, the war had begun and Natasha was gone, having been kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Natasha eventually returned home, but her brutal past and addiction to heroin caused her to disappear again. Now, Sonja constantly searches for answers about what happened to Natasha.

Back in Eldár, Akhmed cares for his wife Ula, who has been bedridden for two years. Akhmed knows that Dokka was betrayed by Ramzan, a man who used to be their close friend. Dokka often housed Chechen refugees who passed through the village, making him a target for the Feds. Ramzan lives with his father Khassan, but nobody in the village will speak to Ramzan or Khassan because they know Ramzan is an informant for the Feds. Khassan also refuses to speak to his son.

Through flashbacks, it is revealed that Ramzan was captured twice by the Feds and brought to the Landfill, a prison composed of pits carved out of an old garbage dump. Ramzan was first captured in 1995 simply for being in a nearby town the same day rebels attacked the Feds. Ramzan was brutally tortured but refused to give over the names of any fellow villagers who aided the rebels. Years later, Ramzan and Dokka were smuggling weapons for the rebels when they were captured. Unwilling to endure torture for a second time, Ramzan agreed to become an informant.

A Federalist soldier contacts Ramzan and explains that a Makarov pistol was used to shoot a Russian colonel two years prior. The serial number on the pistol matches the weapons Ramzan and Dokka were carrying the day they were captured. Ramzan had stolen the Makarov pistol and given it to Dokka for protection, but it would have been impossible for Dokka to use the gun because soldiers at the Landfill had tortured Dokka by cutting off all of his fingers. Even though Ramzan doesn’t know what happened to the pistol, he gives the Feds Akhmed’s name to protect himself.

Another series of flashbacks reveal that Natasha helped Havaa’s mother deliver baby Havaa at the hospital during the brief time she was back at home with Sonja. When Natasha ran away for the second time, she passed through the village of Eldár, where Dokka recognized her from Havaa’s birth and insisted on giving her a place to stay. While staying with Dokka, Natasha gave Havaa a nutcracker that had been a gift to Natasha from Sonja. Before Natasha left Dokka’s home, Dokka gave her the Makarov pistol for protection. Days later, while trying to pass through a checkpoint, a Russian colonel attempted to sexually assault Natasha. Natasha shot the colonel. Nearby soldiers heard the gunshot and shot Natasha, killing her. Sonja never finds out what happened to her sister.

After Ramzan betrays Akhmed, Akhmed knows it is only a matter of time before the Feds come for him as well. Five nights after they came for Dokka, the Feds break down Akhmed’s door and capture him. Before they can take him, Akhmed injects Ula with a lethal dose of heroin so that she may die peacefully.

When Akhmed doesn’t return to the hospital the next morning, Sonja realizes he has been captured. Nevertheless, Sonja decides to continue protecting Havaa and takes Havaa back to her apartment. Havaa unpacks her suitcase to reveal the nutcracker. Sonja raises Havaa, and Havaa goes on to live a long life.