Anthony Marra’s debut novel is nothing short of astonishing. Here is a novelist you can expect great things from. It is extremely well written, well structured, heartfelt, humorous, dark and insightful. Most importantly, it will make you think.
Set over the course of ten years in war torn Chechnya, there is a lot going on here with regard to the war but the war is more of a background to the characters, who struggle to survive bombings, lack of medical care, disappearances, paranoia, lack of food and clean water. These characters are living through a nightmare that most Western minds cannot even comprehend. There is also a lot of history here - going all the way back to the 19th Century, through Stalin’s forced “relocation” of the Chechen population to Central Asia, to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the current struggle, where Arab Jihadists filter across the borders to help the rebels fight more than a century of Russian oppression of this small landlocked republic.
The novel opens with the principal character, Ahkmed, watching his neighbor and good friend, Dokka, being hauled out of his house in the middle of the night by security forces. Dokka’s daughter, Havaa, escapes and Ahkmed takes care of her, bringing her to the one functioning hospital in the nearest city. The hospital is run by Sonja, an ethnic Russian, who had lived in London for a time on a medical scholarship and returned to Chechnya to help the sick and the injured. Sonja, cynical and tired, doesn’t want to deal with the responsibility of protecting a young girl and Ahkmed, being a failed surgeon, offers to volunteer at the hospital as a way to keep an eye on the girl as well as force Sonja to as well. The security forces who had disappeared the girl’s father are after her as well, the logic being that the offspring will one day become rebels themselves, so the whole family had to be wiped out.
This is the story that takes place over 5 days in 2004 but each of the characters stories are told over the course of a 10 year period. There’s Sonja’s sister Natasha, who escaped as a refugee during the first war only to find herself being sold into the sex trade. There’s Khassan, the 78 year old neighbor of Ahkmed who had written a 3,000 page history of Chechnya which consumed his whole life and also harbors a secret of his own with regard to Ahkmed. Khassan’s son Ramzan, who turned informant after being tortured and castrated, and there’s Dokka, who had initially been taken by security forces and let go with a warning, only after having all ten fingers cut off with bolt cutters. Dokka’s home served as a safe haven for refugees which of course led to his ultimate fate.
The wonderful thing about the structure of this novel is over the timeline in which the story takes place, each of these characters are all connected through a web of the other’s personal stories - which I won’t reveal here - and its structured so that the whole story is told in a non-linear way which greatly heightens the narrative tension and most definitely the drama. The dark, horrible things - and sometimes surreal - events are sometimes offset with a healthy dose of black humor (as when Ahkmed tells little Havaa to teach the hospital’s one armed security guard how to juggle or when Ahkmed, being so thoroughly isolated, confuses Ronald McDonald for Ronald Reagan) which will make the reader laugh out loud at times but in no way diminishes the serious nature of the narrative as a whole.
I can’t, and won’t, reveal what happens here, mainly because you need to read and experience this wonderful story for yourself. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, for sure, and you will feel for all these characters as you walk with them and learn the details of their individual stories. In a lot of ways, it reminds me a lot of Eastern European literature in the vein of Kundera and Tolstoy (his novel about Chechnya “Hadji Murad” is referenced throughout). It’s epic in scope without being “massive” although narratively, emotionally and dramatically complex. The future only knows what’s in store for Marra as a novelist - but even if this one book is the only book he ever writes, he would have accomplished something extraordinary.