I didn't plan on reading this book. Last year I read Anthony Marra's latest book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, and loved it so much that I was afraid to go back and read his earlier work. (I generally have found it's not a good idea to go backwards in a writer's work.) But a friend recently finished reading this and raved about it, so I figured I'd give it a go. I have a vague memory of trying to read it when it first came out, and it didn't click with me. But you know, different times can yield different reading experiences.
So yes, my expectations were low. But they were vastly rewarded. I will say that there were moments in this book that felt a bit slow, yet by the end, everything paid off. This is very much a book in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
As for those parts: This book is ostensibly set in five days during the second Chechen War. It opens in a small Chechen village, where Russian soldiers kidnap a man and burn his house down while his eight-year-old daughter watches from the safety of the woods. A neighbor finds her and knows she's likely a target too, so he takes her to a nearby hospital to put her in the protection of a doctor there.
That action is the springboard to a much bigger, more complex story. It's the story of the little girl's family and neighbors. It's the story of the man who saved her, and his family and life. It's the story of the doctor, Sonja, and her sister, Natasha. It's the story of how all their lives have been transformed by the ongoing wars in Chechnya.
But as complicated as it is, author Marra depicts everything clearly, thoroughly builds out his characters, and makes you care about them, even some of the evil ones. That these wars were horrendous is no secret, and Marra doesn't shy away from that. There's never a moment when the reader isn't aware that any of these characters, even your favorites, could be arrested, or tortured, or killed.
And in a bit of literary sleight-of-hand, Marra makes you aware of so many other people. There are little asides about characters who aren't integral to the plot, but you learn about their fates in such a way that you start to see the bigger picture of this war:
"Natasha held back her hair as she lit a cigarette from the hot plate her father had, twelve years earlier, purchased secondhand from a woman who would never find a flame that cooked an egg quite as well."
Do we need to know that detail about the woman who shouldn't have sold her hot plate? Not really. But it happens again and again, with consequences far more dire than not having a good flame, until the ghosts of these people are as real as the characters are. It's quite an accomplishment when done well, and Marra nails it.
I knew very little about Chechnya and these wars before reading the book. While I imagine the book would be even more impressive if I did know more, at no time did I feel like I was in over my head. Marra understands that people drive the story, and the reader doesn't have to 100% understand their politics and history to get the awfulness of what's happening to them.
I should add, I'm making this sound like a very grim book. And it is, in parts. But other parts are just plain funny, or touching. Just like life is.
Wonder how long I'll have to wait for Marra's next book...