Thursday, May 30, 2013

From Left to Write: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Due to my Mother's Day induced depression I'm about 10 days late getting this up. Because of some of the themes in the book I could not use it to escape my own situation like you can in other books. But now I'm feeling better about that, and I'm glad I picked it back up.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place in the war torn land of Chechnya from 1994-2004. Being a social sciences major I took a few classes on 20th Century Russia but we never learned much about Chechnya or the other former members of the Soviet Union. After reading this book I have to wonder, why not? Of course this seemed very timely having received this book so soon after the Boston Bombings.  If you enjoy historical fiction I would definitely recommend you pick up a copy.

Although the book takes place during the First and Second Chechen Wars, it does not do so chronologically. The book uses a series of flashbacks to slowly reveal information about the characters and setting. It also commonly gives little snippets about what happens to minor characters in the future.  I really enjoyed learning what happened to people you would normally never hear from again.

Three of the characters in the book are infertile. This would seem like the perfect inspiration for a post, but there was something else I felt more drawn to. One of them is infertile due to a condition I can't relate to, the others are never given a reason for their infertility. It is mostly mentioned to let the reader know they don't have children because they can't rather than don't want any. One of the infertiles in particular definitely mourns the loss of his potential children, which is one of the reasons I found it hard to read around Mother's Day.

One of the main characters is Akhmed, the doctor of a small remote village who would much rather be a portraitist. His wife Ula is bedridden due to an unspecified chronic illness. He thinks perhaps it is "lupus coupled with early-onset dementia", but he's not a very good doctor and doesn't have many resources so he can't be sure. He has to do everything for her, and while he still loves her he sees her as more a patient or a ward than a wife. Minor spoiler warning: He eventually cheats on her because she is incapable of fulfilling his needs.

This I could relate to far more than I would like. I have never been as bad off as Ula, but there have been times I've been on bed rest. I might could feed myself, but I couldn't get my own food from the kitchen. I could bathe myself, but occasionally the pain would get so bad I could do nothing but sit on the tub floor hoping Josh would eventually come check on me and help me out. When the pain is at it's worst I might wake up sobbing, unable to muster the strength to get up and get my pain meds for a half an hour or more if he is not there to help me.

More than the physical symptoms of my condition, my decreased mental ability is what scares me the most. I used to be smart. In (I think?) seventh grade I took the SATs and almost passed. I was only a few points away from getting a full ride to Duke University. In 10th grade I was taking classes full time at the local college. When I first met my husband we used to spend hours debating and having intellectual conversations. We don't do that anymore. I am hopeful that when I am able to go off the medication completely the fog will lift and my mental acuity will return. That smart person still has to be in here somewhere. However I know the medication has changed my brain. After my first prolonged period on it I developed motion sickness that has never gone away. I have lost countless memories that I will never get back. One of my worst fears is that my husband will think I can't meet his needs for intellectual stimulation, and start to look for someone else to do so.

As a member of From Left to Write I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. Check out more posts inspired by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena here

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