More than three quarters of the way through this heart breaking and compelling novel, the title - above - is defined for us. On page 1322 of a medical dictionary - Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. In the middle of one of the many awful wars of the past 100 years, this unusual definition places humanity, small kindnesses, personal and intimate deeds at the heart of the story and the people in this novel.
Chechnya - breakaway republic from the iron arm of Russia, rich in natural resources, not allowed to be in charge of its destiny by mighty Moscow. In our Western press, all we have ever really heard about this isolated far away place is the extreme actions of its terrorists. But this is a region which has had more than its fair share of destruction, rebuild, invasion, expulsion, rebuild than any population should have to bear. Hardly surprising they should choose to resist from time to time. But as with most stories of war, very little is ever told of the lives of the ordinary people, their inability to control or manage their fate and the fates of their families. So it is in this story.
Amazingly this is a first novel, and the author is still only in his twenties. Following a period of study in St Petersburg, he first came to learn about Chechnya, its people and its history. The quote above comes from a medical dictionary he was looking at one day.
The story moves somewhat erratically between 1994 and 2004 when the latest two wars took place. The action in 2004 takes place over five days and is centered in a village where three men - Akhmed, Dokka, Ramzan - all friends since childhood live. Another key character is Ramzan's father Khassan. The story is also told through the eyes of Dokka's eight year old daughter Havaa, a brilliant Russian born doctor Sofia and her sister Natasha. Heart breaking things happen to each of these people, and they are all faced at some stage with making some very hard decisions as they confront the terrible consequences of civil war.
In the very first paragraph Havaa sees her father seized by the Feds and her house burnt down. She is rescued by Akhmed who flees with her to the one and only surviving hospital which he knows is the only place Havaa will be safe from the Russians. He entrusts her to the care of Sofia, and as an ex-doctor himself stays to help out. Unfolding in the village is the ongoing search for Havaa, the dilemma that Ramzan who is an informer faces, and the position that Khassan too finds himself in. As the story unfolds Natasha's link to this small village and the resulting betrayals unfolds. Nothing, however, is ever simple, but the constant and at times annoying plot movements over the ten year period slowly begin to make sense.
This is a haunting story, and like many other novels of its kind, can't help but make us question how we, in our safe comfortable worlds, would behave in such extreme circumstances.