Avid book reader. Lover of fantasy, contemporary fiction, short stories and non-fiction. This blog is a work in progress - and it will likely always be that way.
“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” With that sentence, Anthony Marra starts weaving a beautiful, but also hard story staged in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004.
There are a few things remarkable in this work. First there is the topic: the Chechen conflict isn’t one us Westerners are very familiar with, but very artfully the author makes us understand at least one side of the conflict, without becoming a history lesson or needing any quick Wikipedia-style research.
The second is that despite the heavy topic, he manages to get some rays of lightness into the story: there are conversations especially in the first part of the book that are actually kind of funny. And yet, most of the time, it’s only funny because it is too absurd and tragic to be true, and once you realize that you probably will stop smiling.
“It must be pay-day soon,” one of the character dryly comments when they hear a lot of gun shots all of a sudden. It seems the Russian soldiers’ pay was linked the amount of munition ‘used’, leading to them blindly shooting around to empty their guns. Just the idea that anyone would measure a soldier's performance and efficiency by a certain amount of munition used, is making me a little nauseous.
What Marra does really well is painting powerful images. Two in particular have stuck with me:
The first, the image of a village covered in upside down toilet bowls. We learn that the Chechens used these unbreakable Sovjet toilets to protect them against unexploded artillery shells the army left behind.
The second, eight year old Havaa receives a Barbie doll from the doctor taking care of her. This particular Barbie is dressed in a ballroom gown and has a tiara, and Havaa wonders why the doll is smiling. The explanation that perhaps she is a black widow who went to a Moscow theatre to take hostages, hence also the dress and the jewelry, is mentioned very innocently. As if it really isn't a big thing. But it triggered something in my mind: the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, where 40 armed Chechens took more than 800 Russians hostage for more than two days. More than 150 people died during this siege, most of them due to a toxic gas the Russian forces used to end it.
Overall, this book is a beautiful story about survival and loyalty. The Chechen conflict is a heavy topic, but it is written with a lot of grace, and some very realistic characters. There’s a doctor who spends most of his time making portraits of missing people, and his colleague needs to buy the essential first aid supplies from the black market. There is a father who teaches his daughter to bucket things into –ists: you are minimalist, or empirist, or socialist, or communist, or obstructionist, or terrorist. In a world like theirs, it’s important to bucket people and to know what people are.
This might just be the best book of the year.
I highly recommend it.