There are plenty of reasons to read fiction. We read novels to relax, to be entertained, to revel in the beauty of words, to unravel structure and technique, or to join in a cultural conversation. Every now and then I run across a book that reminds me of one of my favorite facets of great fiction: it can change the way we view the world.
The basic plot synopsis of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena didn’t initially grab me, so I’m glad one of the book clubs I’m in picked it for our February meeting. I’m guessing it will make my Year in Books list come December.
The book traces how the lives of a handful of individuals interweave and influence one another in wartime Chechnya. The story is haunting and well written, with an amazing capacity to convey both the harsh realities and the moments of beauty that break in on the lives of the ordinary people caught up in truly desperate situations. The present action of the book happens over the course of only a few days, but the author skillfully uses memories to provide historical context and deepen the character development and their relationships to each other. The structure of this book is so well done and so deliberately chosen that the timeline feels intuitive and you’re never caught wondering where you are in space or time. I’m not sure how that would come across in the audio version, but in the print copy it worked brilliantly.
I lived in Europe during part of the timeline of this novel, spent time in Russia in high school, studied Russian language, history, and literature in college, and of course had a more western perspective on Islamic extremism in the years following 9/11. I knew about Chechen conflicts, but I viewed the country with a distant lens. Because of that background, my perspective on Chechnya was really challenged by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My previous understanding of Chechnya was based on what I had read about historical and geopolitical issues from a primarily western point of view, so getting a feel for the country, the history and origins of its issues and conflicts, and the personal costs of each maneuver from the Chechen people’s viewpoint was invaluable.
One strength of the novel is in showing the human costs of both the influx of Wahhabi ideas into the Chechen rebellion and also the senselessness of the Russian response to what they perceived as terrorism. The question of how to define Chechen nationalism when the people are Sufi or Catholic and the money is Wahhabi and/or Arab is complex: are the rebels a nationalist movement or a terrorist group? And how could the Russian response be justified in either case? The book doesn’t get deeply into that issue, but rather focuses on the fact that whether a village is being “liberated” by the rebels or “liberated” by the Feds (Russians), normal people are always caught in the crossfire. You can see pictures online of mass devastation and completely obliterated cities, but the novel’s ability to focus in on individuals–on one little girl, one university professor, one doctor, one artist–adds critical nuance.
Throughout my reading of the book and afterwards I kept being struck by what courage and determination it must take to keep surviving, maintain your humanity, and even raise children over decades of terror, uncertainty, and deprivation. Even though circumstances have improved in Chechnya somewhat, I find myself praying for Chechens and their country because of how massive and lengthy an undertaking it will be not just to rebuild the cities but to heal as a people and a culture.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena would be a great accompaniment to The Locust Effect (link is to my longer review), which is a powerful and also perspective-changing nonfiction discussion of the effects of violence and human trafficking. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena illustrates how senseless violence, lack of reliable and just law enforcement, extreme poverty, and human trafficking impact normal people when countries are in crisis.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a great story, with memorable characters and excellent writing. But it’s also a high impact, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful book that will expand your understanding and deepen your knowledge of the world. I highly recommend it.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.