Monday, July 21, 2014

Book-A-Day #21: A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, a book I loved but expected to hate


The Hogarth Press
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: 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.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-first, discuss a book you expected to hate but ended up loving.
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

Now, there is always a matter of taste when it comes to appreciating or otherwise a given writer's work. Do the writer's words ring you like a bell? Do they smack you in the chops? Do they slither into your ears emitting glassy slime like a hagfish? That's the chief factor in determining your ultimate response to a work. I think some writers are equivalent of chocolatiers, making bonbon after truffle upon caramel. Lovely taken one at a time; urpsome in bulk. I think Marra is a chocolatier of a writer in this book.
There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.
Mmmmm. Yum. Sing it, Brother Anthony, sing it.
Invader and invaded held on to their fistfuls of earth, but in the end, the earth outlived the hands that held it.
Yes. I concur. A bit baroque, permabehaps, but yes.
For their entire lives, even before they met you, your mother and father held their love for you inside their hearts like an acorn holds an oak tree.
Oh gag me! A milk chocolate strawberry creme-filled emetic-level Whitman's Sampler spitback!

So here I was, alternately uplifted and revolted, and still...this story made me stop what I was thinking and attend to it, and that's no mean feat. The horror of stories about war is, for me, only partially touched by the battles and the soldiers and the wounds they inflict on themselves and each other. The people whose lives are utterly upended by wars fought in their name and on their land are so often simply disappeared in toponymic abstraction (eg, the Mexican-American War). This novel doesn't look so much at the war as at the warred-over place and its inhabitants.

Marra's gift is in making images of the place vivid:
The trees they passed repeated on and on into the woods. None was remarkable when compared to the next, but each was individual in some small regard: the number of limbs, the girth of trunk, the circumference of shed leaves encircling the base. No more than minor peculiarities, but minor particularities were what transformed two eyes, a nose, and a mouth into a face.
And the people who live in the violated, wounded place:
As someone whose days were defined by the ten thousand ways a human can hurt, she needed, now and then, to remember that the nervous system didn't exist exclusively to feel pain.
It's a very well-made book, it's got a helluva wallop of a message, and it's fun to read. I was expecting nothing more than a flashy MFA-from-Iowa-Writers'-Workshop meretricious bauble. Some parts of the book are, in fact, that very thing. One's own taste determines where the balance point lies. Are there more surprisingly good moments than there are expectedly Shiny-Brite ones?
Entire years had passed when he was rich enough in time to disregard the loose change of a minute, but now he obsessed over each one, this minute, the next minute, the one following, all of which were different terms for the same illusion.
And there I say yes. Yes, this is more beautiful than brummagem.

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