A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

 

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My Review:

I missed this stunner from 2013 and was thrilled to backtrack and read Anthony Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena set during wartime in Chechnya over the time span of 10 years.  Eight year old Havaa’s father is taken away in the night by the Russian army and her house is set on fire.   The family friend and neighbor, Akhmed, finds her hiding in the backyard with a suitcase she had prepared months before under her father’s advise and he leaves his ailing wife for the day while he brings the young girl to a nearby bombed out hospital for safety.  He puts Havaa in the care of the only remaining doctor, Sonia, who agrees to harbor the child, now a target of the Russian military, and he also volunteers to help out at the understaffed medical facility.

There are four pairs of characters that are intertwined in this story…the young child Havaa and her abducted father Dokka, neighbor Akhmed and his sick wife Ula, physician Sonia and her missing drug-addicted sister Natasha, Khasssam, Akhmed’s friend and scholar and his estranged informant son, Ramzan.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena alternates time periods from 1994 – 2004 and the story tells what each of these characters endured during this time of war.  From sex trafficking and drug addition, to torture and mutilation, from births and deaths, to promises kept and secrets told, each and every part of this powerful story is a crucial piece of the puzzle and may warrant re-reading so nothing is missed.  The Russian names added to the complexity for me, but reviewing sections lead me to unforgettable revelations and made the book even more rich and colorful despite the bleak setting.

As we learn of the characters’ histories throughout the chapters, author Anthony Marra has them unleashing memories that provide us with incite and understanding, and binds them together to form the intricate mosaic of deep relationships.  These damaged people of Chechnya try to recover from their violent pasts as they search to find meaning in their experiences and purpose in the now. This is a most vivid storytelling of a profound and unforgettable story.  If you haven’t read it, you should.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

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The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams

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My Review:

Don’t let this exceptional new novel fall under the radar!  Based on war-torn Africa and the innocent people caught in the middle, the stunning debut, The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams takes us to Uganda where a young girl, Lily, goes missing.  The authorities are hard to come by and disorganized, so her aunt, Sabine, a former aid worker, travels from Germany to the village where she was last seen, to trace Lily’s steps and try to understand if she was in danger and kidnapped, or if she had a motive to disappear.  At the same time, a Ugandan woman, Rose, previously kidnapped and emotionally and physically abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army but now back in her village, is looking for her missing boyfriend, Ocen.  Sabine and Rose work together to unravel the intertwined lives of their loved ones, leading them back to their own deep, dark secrets.

Having had aid work experience herself, author Jenny D. Williams takes us on a vividly portrayed journey through Uganda, and  this incredible story was inspired by real events.  In 1996 there was an abduction of 139 school girls from St. Mary’s College in northern Uganda.  Operation Lighting Thunder was the name of the military action by the Ugandan government against LRA forces.  In the book, one of the characters talks about the problems there saying “The conflict in Congo is probably the most complicated war in the world.  Two wars, technically, in the last twenty years, but they overlap quite a bit.  Nine African nations.  Twenty armed groups.  Five and a half million people dead, mostly from disease and starvation.   Large-scale fighting has been occurring in various provinces since Rwanda invaded eastern Congo – it was Zaire, then – 1996.  Ever since, the country has been mired in one conflict after another.”

Jenny D. Williams has traveled and lived in Uganda and then to Germany where she wrote the book.  Her knowledge of the country is evident and her complex characters slowly reveal themselves as we learn about their pasts.   With beautifully expressed emotion and character complexity Williams allowed me to feel the pain and struggles as the story progressed. She provided insight into why the characters are who they are, giving them dimension.

During the frantic search for her niece, Sabine recalls her deceased sister’s comment about being a mother, “It feels as though a piece of my heart exists outside my own body, in another person.  And I can never get it back.”  Sabine is introspective and recognizes why she will never have children, “why would you want a piece of your heart in such a precarious location as someone else’s body?  Why choose that uncertainty, that terror, that utter lack of control?  As she grew older, this approach extended to lovers and friends, because how could she do her job if her heart was elsewhere?  Love made you selfish; love made you choose some above others.  And so all these many years later, her heart was lonely but whole.  Unseen – but intact.”

Visit www.JennyDWilliams.com for more from the author and pick up a copy of The Atlas of Forgotten Places; Beautiful writing and chock full of emotion, this suspenseful, historically rich debut is not to to be missed.

 

As seen in Goodreads:

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is that rare novel that delivers an exquisite portrait of family and love within a breathlessly, thrilling narrative.

After a long career as an aid worker, Sabine Hardt has retreated to her native Germany for a quieter life. But when her American niece Lily disappears while volunteering in Uganda, Sabine must return to places and memories she once thought buried in order to find her. In Uganda, Rose Akulu—haunted by a troubled past with the Lord’s Resistance Army—becomes distressed when her lover Ocen vanishes without a trace. Side by side, Sabine and Rose must unravel the tangled threads that tie Lily and Ocen’s lives together—ultimately discovering that the truth of their loved ones’ disappearance is inescapably entwined to the secrets the two women carry.

Masterfully plotted and vividly rendered by a fresh new voice in fiction, The Atlas of Forgotten Places delves deep into the heart of compassion and redemption through a journey that spans geographies and generations to lay bare the stories that connect us all.

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About the author:

JENNY D. WILLIAMS has lived in the U.S., Uganda, and Germany. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a BA from UC Berkeley. Her award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and illustrations have been published in The Sun Magazine, Vela, and Ethical Traveler, as well as several anthologies. A former Teachers & Writers Collaborative fellow and recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband and dog. The Atlas of Forgotten Places is her first novel.