A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity.
Marra’s vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant: religious and separatist battles have left the roadways studded with land mines, the buildings pockmarked with bullets and many residents disappeared and tortured. The characters Marra brings to this landscape, though, are thankfully lacking in pieties about the indomitability of the human spirit. At the core of the story is Sonja, a longtime doctor with a flinty, seen-it-all demeanor who, as the story starts in 2004, has taken in an unlikely pair: Akhmed, a barely competent but well-intentioned doctor who is protecting Havaa, whose father has been abducted. Akhmed is quickly put to work learning to saw off shrapnel-flayed legs, and as the novel shifts back and forth in time, each of their stories deepens. The most affecting and harrowing subplot involves Sonja’s sister Natasha, who is missing as the story begins; we quickly learn the various indignities she suffered in the years before, forced into prostitution and addicted to heroin but later recovered enough to help deliver babies alongside her sister. Marra has carefully threaded his characters to work an everybody-is-connected theme, and some of those connections ultimately feel contrived. But he’s a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters’ fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer.
A somber, sensitive portrait of how lives fray and bind again in chaotic circumstances.