This is quite a book. It starts out rather slowly, but is always captivating. It takes place over 5 days, with flashbacks up to 10 years back with backstories. The entire book feels somewhat circular, with ideas and themes from the beginning resolved and revisited in the concluding pages. At its core, it is about what it takes to survive and explores what is truly required.
The story plays with people who aren’t good at what they are, but are excellent at who they are. Akhmed is a terrible doctor, but a fantastic artist and loyal friend. Sonja is an excellent doctor, but a lousy friend. Through the story, and the interactions with each other, Akhmed becomes a better doctor and Sonja becomes a better friend. How the characters respond to their fears shows who they really are. Sonja locks herself into her work and pushes everyone away because of her fear. Haava remains childlike in spite of her fears. Akhmed overcomes his fears to remain loyal to his friends. He uses his fear to power his bravest actions.
The writing style is almost mesmerizing, with vivid descriptions. Anthony Marra used a technique I haven’t seen before where he would describe something in its current context, and then tie up the loose end of it in the same phrase. Frequently sentences would have an item or person’s past, its present, and its future all wrapped together.
It is hard to explain.
“No, it’s not a ride. It’s just a staircase that moves. That’s all.”
“Then this is a broken escalator.”
In three years that staircase would become the first escalator in Chechnya. On weekends families from as far away as Lake Kezanoiam would bring their children to play on it (p. 190).
I didn’t know that I was curious about the fate of a particular staircase, but having that detail into the future is satisfying and it fits with the fluidity of time throughout the entire book.
Time moves in the book like time moves when we tell stories. We start with what is happening now, and then slip into the past to explain the background, then jump back into the present to continue. It is atypical for books, but feels very natural for storytelling. Past, present and future are irrelevant, but who people were, are and will be is more of what matters.
Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra