Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Chechnya aside from the fact that it was in a seemingly constant battle for independence from Russia. And in some ways, I guess that’s still what it’s known as: a republic that would like to be independent of Russia except that it can’t seem to remain stable as its own nation. Like so many nations plagued by war and a struggling economy, corrupt leaders plunged a fledgling Chechnya into chaos instead of stability–and that chaos led it right back into a Russian Republic. The story takes place between 1994 and 2004, jumping back and forth between the times before, during, and after the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. The time jumps can be a little confusing, and I found myself rereading Wikipedia articles to try to keep the war outcomes straight and trying to figure out who the “Feds” referred to exactly, but eventually, I decided it didn’t much matter. This is a story of family and neighbors. Of Sonja, who is trying desperately to run a nearly abandoned hospital in Grozny while dealing with the loss of her sister, and of Havaa whose father has been abducted and who needs a safe haven. It’s a story that reveals the complexities of survival–how far can each of them (or each of us) be stretched before we break or give in. How compassionate can anyone afford to be in an environment of devastation and corruption. And yet, we witness faith and commitment beyond what seems possible in such a war torn place. At one point in the story, Akhmed–Havaa’s neighbor who shepherds her after her father’s abduction–is drawing portraits of missing people. Families come to him to draw a portrait of their son or brother or father or mother or aunt, the family member who has been abducted by the Feds and will likely never return. These portraits offer the only physical reminder of those who have disappeared, and Marra writes this scene in one sentence that is nearly 500 words long (1.25 pages of connected clauses that is–yes–grammatically correct). The sentence seems to be a metaphor for challenges that stretch out indefinitely.
This story reveals the power that the Russian government inflicted on these people and of the courage that the rebels used in their resistance. But we also see how Russian soldiers who brutalized others were starving and freezing because their own government gave them guns but not food or proper clothing. Basically everyone in the story is scrapping out a life of survival whether they’re fighting for or against the Russian Feds. Torture, kidnapping, starvation, forced prostitution, corruption, you name it. It’s part of the Chechen story. And while this is a book of fiction, it seems to bring out the raw truth of living in Chechnya during this war torn era. And yet, somehow, Marra brings this devastation to us through beautiful, at times almost poetic, writing.