A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This one is going to stay with me a long time.
As with Kate Grenville's The Secret River, this novel tackles a subject about which I was woefully ignorant, the wars between the Russian state and Chechen rebels in the decades following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Maybe because the horrors related in this book are not something out of the distant past, but took place during my unbelievably unaware adulthood, the effect on me was far more profound.
Or maybe that effect is due to the memorable characters Marra creates, and the ways they make you think about what you might do faced with unthinkable circumstances; how you would define loyalty and love and family, and the notion of survival itself. Or maybe it's the way he describes small moments and details that stick with you, how he injects humor into the horror because, after all, that is what people do when trying to hold on to their humanity. In that last respect, this novel reminded me of City of Thieves, although Marra's book is by far the more serious of the two.
This was one of those books that I simultaneously wanted to devour and read very slowly, both because I didn't want it to end, and because I couldn't bear the thought of losing characters to the violence of war. Amazing to think that this haunting novel is Marra's first.