This is Anthony Marra's first novel, and it is superb! Marra is a young professor teaching at Stanford University, and he has chosen a volatile area of the world to write about, one we in the west know little of except for its violence and being the spawning place of terrorists and crime. The setting of his novel is Chechnya in the North Caucasus. The novel introduces us to realistic characters who remind us that in the middle of whatever nightmare they are caught in, they have the need for love and friendship in the face of the overlying anxiety they live with in their daily lives. This helps us to understand them and identify with their universal needs.
The novel takes place between 1994 and 2004, a time that encompasses the two recent Chechen wars, and its policing by Russia. One of the characters, Khassan has been working for most of his life on a 6 volume history of the region, and through him, the reader learns a bit of Chechen history. After the 1917 Russian revolution, Chechnya was an autonomous republic and part of the USSR. Then after World War II, Stalin forcibly shipped off most of its Muslim population to Kazakhstan because some of the inhabitants of this rural region preferred to be conquered by the Germans than live under the reign of Bolsheviks. They were eventually allowed to return to their homeland.
The novel opens in a rural village where we meet a group of three friends who had grown up together. One of the men, Ramzen, betrays his innocent friends to the Russians who are stamping out all resistance to their regime and looking for Muslim Jihadi sympathisers. The story we follow is that of Akmed a gifted artist who is also an incompetent doctor. After Ramzen betrays his friend Dokka who is taken away by the secret police, Akmed helps Dokka's eight-year-old daughter escape. He takes her to Hospital #6 where we meet the other main character in the novel, Sonja.
The woman whose story intersects with that of Akmed is Sonja Rabina, a Russian whose family had relocated to the area in the 50s when the native Chechens were move out. Sonja is a physician who was living and working in London. She returned to Chechnya between the wars to search for her sister, Natasha, who had disappeared after she had been kidnapped and forced into a life of prostitution. What Sonja returned to was a destroyed city with bombed out apartment buildings, including the one that had been lived in by her family. Eventually she is reunited with Natasha between the wars. Their relationship is an interesting one. When Natasha leaves for a second and final time, Sonja never gives up hope that she will find her sister again.
By this time Sonja is the only doctor left in what had once been a thriving hospital in Volchansk. Akmed arrives on the scene with Havaa, the little girl and throws himself on the mercy of Sonja to collude in hiding the child. At the same time, Sonja takes on Akmed as she is in dire need of help with the unending stream of patients who come for help, most needing surgery and amputations. Their relationship allows a bit of levity into what is is a thoroughly depressing situation.
While the subject is a heavy one, Marra skillfully keeps the story moving between darkness and light as he shifts back in time to fill in back stories in the 10 year span which is the largest section of the book. The reader truly believes in and cares for these characters. Especially touching is the relationship that develops among Sonja, Akmed and Havaa. This section of the story takes place over only five days in 2004. By the end of the novel, all the characters are connected in one way or another.
The title of the novel comes from a Russian medical textbook that Natasha finds and becomes fascinated with. The text defines life as a constellation of vital phenomena--organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction,adaptation. All this is contained in the wonderful and amazing story Marra relates to us. I highly recommend this book, though I caution that it deals with sad times in an area of the world that is in constant turmoil. It would be a good choice for a reading group as there is much to ponder on in these pages.