Somehow I managed to have never even heard of a novel that was a New York Times notable book of the year, a Washington Post top 10 book of the year, an Amazon best book of the year, a Publishers Weekly top 10 book of the year, a Kirkus Reviews best book of the year, a Library Journal top 10 book of the year, and so on and so on. And Ann Patchett declared it her favorite book of 2013. How did I miss this?!
Well, luckily, I finally discovered this wondrous novel: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. And I loved it. I couldn't put it down. Here's the plot summary from the inside flap:
"In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
"For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance."
I know it sounds really depressing—and parts of it are indeed sad and disturbing—but it ends up feeling mostly uplifting. Marra manages to restore our faith in basic human kindness and decency even while teaching us about a truly horrific time and place. (The book also serves as a crash course in Chechnya's recent history, which I confess I knew next to nil about.)
I don't know how to convey how beautiful the writing is other than to tell you that many times I came to a sentence that I just had to keep reading over and over because I couldn't believe how lovely or profound or astonishing it was on so many levels. (I don't want to give any examples because it's such a pleasure to come upon one of these gems in its natural habitat.) Marra writes with such a big heart and with so much humor even when describing the bleakest of scenarios. You can read the first chapter here.
I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. All opinions are my own.