The Short Version: After her father is disappeared by Federal forces in war-torn Chechnya, a young girl named Havaa is taken by her kind neighbor to a nearby hospital in the hopes that she might be safe there. But the woman running the hospital is fighting her own demons and every day brings all kinds of threats – but life, wonderfully, still goes on.
The Review: You wouldn’t know it by what I do for a living or even by the things that interest me most, but one of the most influential classes I took in college was called “Post-Soviet Politics”, taught by a hilarious and brilliant gentleman named Paul Christensen. His Globalization class was, for me, more interesting and a better class – but Post-Soviet taught me something intangible: there is so much in this world that I do not know. More than a science class that talked about the structure of the universe, more than a philosophy class that talked about the universes inside my mind, this particular class made it so clear to me that the world is – still – a massive place, larger than I could ever know.
So a novel about the war(s) in Chechnya felt simultaneously like awards-bait and like something that might, in fact, fill in a little gap about parts of the world that are still blank for me. We (and by we, I mean educated Westerners) toss around names like Chechnya and Rwanda and Somalia without much understanding for what actually happened there beyond the simplest and most-easily-digested soundbite facts – and awards-bait or no, I was intrigued. This is a trick often performed but rarely well-executed and I’ll admit that I had some reservations going in – but this is a beautiful novel, all the more beautiful for being a debut and for grappling with an under-discussed topic.
Marra doesn’t give us a novel about the wars themselves, although they both play large supporting roles and we see events that happen during those wars. This is, instead, a novel about that “constellation of vital phenomena”, life – and how life happens to go on in Chechnya. A man cares for his slowly dying wife, a son and a father coexist in stony silence, a young girl discovers the world, and a doctor continues to do the best she can with what little she has. These lives are not extraordinary but rather their circumstances – and therein lies the greatest success of the book.
The second greatest success is the writing. This is a novel meant to be read in early December, I think – or at least, during the winter months, in that cold winter sunlight. It’s a beautiful, crisp novel, full of moving descriptions and tenderly-felt passages. One of my favorite tricks, something that I don’t think has ever worked so well (or ever even worked at all outside of comedic usage), is Marra’s tendency to throw us out of the present-tense action to see the past or future of an object or person. A sweater warming Havaa in the opening scene is revealed, in the course of no more than a few sentences, to’ve once been the hand-me-down property of several ManUtd brothers and was donated by a “philanthropic six-year-old” so that his mother would finally buy him a new one. It’s slightly humorous but also darkly affecting: Marra is giving us context for this part of the world and quietly accusing us, as well, for not already having better context. Similarly, he’ll reveal someone’s future through equally sparse and lovely sentences – even if that future is a horrific one.
If I had one critique of the novel, and it’s not so much a critique as an observation, it’s that Marra can only give us a somewhat cursory glance of all the things he attempts to address in this novel. The sex trade, the arms trade, these wars, post-Soviet politics in general… it’s all enough to fill several thousand pages (wryly acknowledged by the author in the form of Khassan’s impressively exhaustive, several thousand page work of the land’s history). When Natasha is (SPOILERS, I guess) revealed to’ve worked for a time as a sex slave, it feels like an issue that deserves a novel unto itself. It adds, of course, to the overall fabric of the story here – but it gets short shrift when it deserves more.
Or is it that I, now, want to know more based on what I’ve read? I feel that way about all of the issues addressed herein and so perhaps Marra’s reach does not exceed his grasp but rather he did the best he could at piquing people’s interest so that they’ll go off and learn more on their own. Whatever the case, you cannot walk away from this novel without a yearning to know more than you currently do.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Marra’s writing reminds me of Ann Patchett’s. It has that same crystal-clear beauty, like an untouched stream deep in the woods. It was a bold choice to tackle such an immense and relatively-unknown issue as the Chechen conflicts for one’s first novel – but Marra nails it by focusing instead on the stories of very human, very ordinary people whose lives just happen to take place under extraordinary circumstances. He manages to keep us from feeling helpless, succumbing to the existential darkness that might accompany such a novel, by showing us the light within even these seemingly ashen lives. The constellation of vital phenomena, the connection of disparate forces to create life is not just within us, as Sonja’s text might explain, but it includes the connections between us as well. Between a father and son, a man and a woman, a friend to a friend – the connections that give this story what you might even call a happy ending, even in the face of the continuing struggles and those still to come.