Anthony Marra said that he wrote the kind of book that he wanted to read. His interest in the Chechnyan region was stimulated by spending university time in St Petersburg, shortly after the assassination of a Russian journalist who wrote extensively about the Chechen wars. Novels about the Chechnyans don't exist, so he wrote one. He said he didn't want to write about the policies, the history, the politics, but about the people, the civilians.
The novel opens with "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones."
Havaa is eight years old, her father has been 'disappeared', and the next five days of trying to save Havaa from a similar fate span the book, buttressed by memories and accountings from various times in the previous ten years.
The story is unwound from different spools, and these are picked up and slowly woven together. The prose is often graceful and poetic, elevating the story above a mere war novel. "Their embrace didn’t break off so much as dissipate, an exhalation releasing whatever tenderness was briefly held between them. His father’s hug was an act of precaution rather than love, so that if Ramzan did not return from the mountains, his father would have the consolation of knowing his final gesture toward his son had been one of kindness rather than disappointment."
Marra's often beautiful prose and insightful scenes belie his youth. (He tweets that despite his 28 years, he has a lot of gray hairs.)
Some events are described a couple of times, each from a different perspective of different characters. It is a sobering reminder that one shouldn't be judgmental - knowledge of the backstory may change your mind.
The novel shows immense compassion towards its characters. There is also humour (frequent), and love (not schmaltzy), and revenge. It is, after all, about Life.
"Life" is defined as "a constellation of vital phenomena" in the Russian medical dictionary of one of the characters. A 'constellation' is an apt description of the construction of these events and how they relate to each other. In this book, Life is also very much the successful avoidance of Death. That is no easy task in this world of double-crossing, back-stabbing, greedy careless cruelties, so retaining Life becomes a phenomenal accomplishment too.
Like this book.