Stellar writing illuminates the conflict in far-flung Chechnya, in a debut novel by American Anthony Marra that predicts a sparkling literary career.
Marra studied in Russia and observed the aftermath of two invasions of the breakaway republic, the first in 1994-96 and the second from 1999 to 2009.
Echoes of those conflicts reverberated in the bombings at the Boston Marathon last month, prompting North Americans to search for reasons why two disaffected young men from that region would engage in terrorism and murder.
Marra's story is set in a village that has been pillaged by both the rebel freedom fighters and the Russian liberators. In the local hospital, devoid of staff and supplies, a doctor named Sonja remains neutral, sewing wounds with dental floss and sawing off the limbs of soldiers from both sides.
She stays in her hopeless situation as penance for having gone to study in London during the first war, leaving her sister alone.
Akhmed, a villager, rescues a little girl after the Russians ("the Feds") arrest her father. He asks Sonja to hide the child, his act of contrition for an affair he had years earlier with her mother.
Akhmed is a failed physician who gives life back to the dead by sketching their portraits and suspending the drawings from branches on trees, where they wave in the wind.
Sonja and Akmed then become bound to the fate of others. Joined by history and chance in a series of events that take place over only a few days, they make decisions that expose their frailties, show their mettle and in a stirring climax, reveal how love can triumph, even in the face of death.
A timeline at the beginning of each chapter gives context to the long conflict as Marra darts back and forth through the characters' lives. An almost playful omniscient narrator provides stop-action moments to backfill information about what brought each to this point.
"'Grozny?' Deshi gaped .... Every Saturday from 1976 though 1978 Deshi had met the seventh of her twelve great loves in the penthouse of the Grozny Intourist Hotel."
The narrator also sees ahead to a time when the brutality and killing are over. A wartime profiteer who runs women in European brothels has no idea "the Parkinson's that would turn him into a quivering jelly mould in 11 years was already fermenting in his midbrain, but his hands didn't shake when he went to light his cigarette."
Marra's precisely chosen, poetic prose elevates this novel to more than just another story of inhumanity. His words sharpen the images of barbarous acts ("a man writhing like a lone noodle in a pot of boiling water"), accent the warmth of intimacies ("the kiss became a conversation") and clarify the complexities of life -- as a father prepares to murder his son in an act of love, as Akmed shows courage he never imagined. Marra's breathtaking writing makes even the most horrific events compelling reading.
North Americans barely know the location of Chechnya, but the separatist struggle there has cost the lives of about 160,000 people, mostly civilians. Untrained teenage conscripts committed indiscriminate atrocities while Chechen fighters tortured Russian captives.
Despite vastly superior armed forces, Russia's military suffered huge losses in ferocious battles in the Caucasus Mountains. They carpet-bombed and nearly levelled the capital, Grozny, to capture it.
Hostilities finally reached more of a stalemate than a conclusion. Over a million people were affected, and each person has a story. Marra gives voice to these experiences with sensitivity and insight.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.