A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. This was a book I wouldn't have chosen to read unless prompted by my book club. The story takes place in a country I am unfamiliar with, Chechnya, but the author did his research well and wrote a beautiful tale set in this war-torn environment. The hook on the inside cover didn't really pull me in either. However, I am thrilled that our book club chose this as our February selection. It was a powerful book and an amazing read (even more amazing given it was a debut novel) and was rightfully named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the Washington Post. (Side note: I love this cover of the book far more than the cover on my library version. This one pops out with the blue suitcase against the background of the dazzling forest behind.)
How to entice you with a simple explanation of the plot, when the professionals didn't hook me with their blurbs? When eight-year-old Havaa's father is taken by the Feds and her home is torched, she flees to the woods. Her neighbor Ahkmed finds her there and brings her in for the night. He is unsure why the Feds are so interested in pursuing a young child, but knows he must get her to safety. The only place he can think to take her is to the hospital in a nearby town. He appeals to the sole doctor on staff at the hospital, Sonja Rabina, begging her to take Havaa in, in exchange for his work in the hospital (he is a very poorly trained doctor himself). Although she balks at this idea, since she is short-handed, she feels she cannot refuse.
As a few days slip by, we learn more and more about the connections between these three individuals. The story bounces back and forth through the years, but is never difficult to follow. We learn of the disappearance of Sonja's sister, Natasha, whose sale into the sex slave trade has left with post traumatic stress disorder. We learn of Ahkmed's incapacitated wife, left at home alone in bed while he works in the hospital. We learn of another neighbor, Khassan, an author, and his informant son, Ramzan. As the characters weave together, the story reveals the travesties of war, the tenuous hold of love, and the strength of the human spirit.
Although the book didn't make me want to read more about the war-torn Chechnya (its descriptions were vivid and devastating enough to be believable and disturbing), it did fill me with sympathy for the tragedies which are no doubt unfolding in other countries where power has corrupted enough to place even a child's life in danger. It sucked me into the story and made me care deeply about the characters presented. It took me to a world I am unfamiliar with and allowed me to peek inside without having to endure the difficulties myself. It reminded me that each of our lives intersect with many other lives and leave ripples of valuable connection, even when we are not aware. It was a beautiful, haunting tale and even managed to sprinkle humor among the devastation (I laughed especially hard at one conversation about American presidents).
The title perplexed me until I got further into the story, where Natasha circles a definition in a medical dictionary which says: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." The author, in an excellent interview posted on the Amazon website for the book, explains that "As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters." The book is, indeed, about life, all of life ... the ability to change and grow and adapt to unspeakable things, the impact of love on life, and the impact of one life on many others. I imagine if I read it again someday, I will glean ever more from its pages.