“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father,” writes Anthony Marra in the opening sentence of his stunning debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, “Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” At the onset of this sweeping tale, eight-year-old Havaa is taken by a longtime family friend from her rural village in the woods of Chechnya to a bombed-out hospital as a temporary refuge.
The harrowing story continues to unfold amid the two brutal wars of Chechnya between 1994 and 2004 as the author agilely alternates among the perspectives of six characters: the orphaned girl, a doctor, a prostitute/drug addict, a historian/writer, an informant, and a failed doctor/artist. Moving through the devastating lives of these characters over the space of five days, Marra tells an expansive, epic story of this war-ravaged country in southern Russia, a region often forgotten, until last month when two brothers of Chechnyan origin set off homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“I came at the story more from a reader’s point of view than a writer’s at first. I wanted to read a novel set in contemporary Chechnya,” explains Marra. While studying abroad in Saint Petersburg, Russia, during college, the initial sparks of the novel started. “Chechnya was very much in the air at the Metro station near…where I was living,” Marra explains. “A number of Russian veterans of the Chechnya wars gathered there—and I realized that I didn’t know anything about it, but yet here were these kids who were my age who were being sent to fight there.”
Two months before Marra’s arrival in Russia, 48-year-old journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot point-blank in the elevator of her apartment block in central Moscow, and later the brutal act was called an assassination for her writings in opposition to the Chechnyan conflicts. “Her reports of the country were a source of inspiration,” Marra says. “Her moral courage continues to leave me in awe.” Not surprisingly, Politkovskaya’s book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches of Chechnya, was among the many books that Marra read as his interest in the war-torn region grew. Later, he would also read classic novels set in Chechnya by some of the Russian masters, including Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, Hadji Murád.
Instead of taking place on the front lines of war, Marra locates many of his characters within the ghostly walls of an almost-abandoned hospital. “I was interested in a war story about surgeons, not soldiers,” he explains. “I wanted to write a story about the lengths people go to persist and retain their humanity during very trying times. This was the way I chose to enter—through people risking their lives for others in wars rather than taking the lives of others.”
When he was writing a short story (“Chechnya,” which won the Narrative story contest and later went on to earn a Pushcart) that was related to the novel, Marra encountered a definition for the word “life” in a medical dictionary and quickly realized that it could inform both his characters and the narrative structure of his novel. “Only one entry supplied an adequate definition,” writes Marra from the perspective of Sonja, the remaining doctor at Hospital No. 6, “and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” Marra says about his own experience of stumbling upon the fitting definition: “Right away, it seemed to contain or embody the structure of the book, representing the six main characters as they collide, search, and find one another.”
Surprisingly, the author didn’t make his first trip to Chechnya until after he completed a draft of the manuscript. “History books can’t tell you the scent in the air of an industrial neighborhood or how humid it is during the summer,” Marra says. “The gas pipes are over the ground there, snaking like a maze through the city streets.” As a result, he went through the manuscript and updated many details to reflect the cultural and societal aspects that he learned during his travels.
Already, 27-year-old Marra has earned multiple accolades and fellowships prior to this month’s publication of Constellation: a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Stegner Fellowship in addition to being a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Upon reading his debut novel, a reader quickly understands why his prose has won Marra so many prestigious awards and honors: He writes beyond his years—both in terms of the sophisticated narrative structure and the rich complexity of his characters. With each of his main characters, Marra draws an authentic portrait of an individual who has endured unspeakable losses and other irrevocable violations. Not only does he capture the atrocities of war, but also the tenderness, the resilience and the kindness that can triumph during such punishing times.
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.