A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena Summary

Anthony Marra

A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena

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A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena Summary

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel by American author Anthony Marra, first published in 2013. Set in Chechnya as Russian soldiers invade, it focuses on a trio of characters battling to survive. Eight-year-old Havaa sees her father abducted in the middle of the night and her house set on fire. She’s found in the forest by her lifelong neighbor Akhmed, who makes the fateful decision that he’ll take her with him as he seeks refuge in an abandoned hospital. There, the one remaining daughter, Sonja Rabina, struggles to keep the wounded alive and worries about the added danger that these two refugees will bring to her sanctuary. Exploring themes of love in wartime, compassion, and the way war impacts civilians from all walks of life, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was a massively acclaimed debut. It received the inaugural John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle for a debut, as well as an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the French Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena begins as Akhmed watches helplessly from a hiding place as his friend and neighbor, Dokka, is arrested by Russian troops and hauled away in the middle of the night. Akhmed knows that Dokka had a daughter, Havaa, and sees that she wasn’t taken. As soon as the military truck leaves, Akhmed goes looking for Havaa in the forest. He finds her, holding a mysterious blue suitcase, and takes her back to his home. The next day, they head for the nearby city where Akhmed has heard that there is a woman doctor running a hospital. Akhmed hopes he’ll be able to find Havaa refuge there. Sonja Rabina is the only doctor who has not abandoned Hospital No. 6, and her staff is down to a single doctor and a single security guard. She has no interest in taking on added responsibility, as she is overwhelmed already, and will only agree to let Havaa stay at the hospital if Akhmed will stay as well and work there. Akhmed was trained as a doctor but graduated at the bottom of his class. It becomes clear from his first day working there that he is not a natural fit for the position, but he agrees to protect Havaa.

Every day when heading to work at the hospital, Akhmed is careful to avoid detection by soldiers. His wife is ill and bedridden, and he has to hide his activities from his neighbor Ramzan. Ramzan is an informant for the Russian military, but he was forced into it because he was tortured and castrated after being captured. Ramzan hates his role and what they’ve turned him into, but he feels powerless to change his situation. Ramzan is under pressure at home from his father, Khassan, who hates his son for betraying the family and feels he should kill him. He can’t bring himself to do it but refuses to speak to Ramzan unless Ramzan is drunk and can’t really hear him or remember their conversations. Khassan becomes an unlikely ally to Akhmed, helping him hide his daily trip to the hospital. It’s revealed that Ramzan is the reason for Dokka’s arrest and is reporting to the military on Havaa. Ramzan was told that a gun he had once owned was used to kill a military officer, and he quickly says that Dokka had had the gun last. He gives them Dokka and Havaa’s address, and the military intends to treat Havaa as just as guilty as her father, regardless of her age.

A flashback reveals that Dokka only had possession of the gun for a short time but gave it away. It would have been impossible for him to use it to kill the officer, however – he is missing all his fingers due to torture, as he was with Ramzan when he was arrested. Dokka devoted himself to caring for Havaa, and his house was a haven for refugees fleeing the military. One day, a young woman named Natasha arrived at his home, and Dokka immediately recognized her as the midwife who delivered Havaa at Hospital No. 6. Dokka tried to get Natasha to remain with him rather than continuing on alone, but she insisted that she had to make her way to the refugee camps to hopefully get on a flight to London. Worrying about her, Dokka gave her the gun, saying it was useless to him and he didn’t want to put that on Havaa. Natasha took the gun and continued, but was stopped at a military checkpoint. When it became clear that an officer was going to rape her, she shot him. She had been held captive years before and vowed never to be a victim again. She’s gunned down by the other soldiers, seconds after killing her attacker. It’s revealed that Sonja is Natasha’s older sister, and Sonja discovers the connection between Natasha and Havaa when she finds a nutcracker in Havaa’s suitcase. The nutcracker was a gift from Sonja to Natasha when they were young. Sonja realizes that Havaa is Natasha’s legacy, and takes responsibility for her. She trains her, and Havaa grows into a successful, educated young woman who follows in Sonja’s footsteps. She eventually dies at Hospital No. 6, at over a hundred years old, in the same place she was born.

Anthony Marra is an American author who specializes in works dealing with the former Soviet Union. In addition to his debut novel, he is the author of a short story, “The Wolves of Bialya Forest,” and a 2015 short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories.