This is a difficult book for me to summarize or review. That’s not a bad thing; it is well-written, with interesting characters, and the type of historical background that I like. But it is dense, and it takes quite a while until the pieces of the story start to fall into place. Nevertheless, even though it sometimes took some work to keep reading, it was a satisfying experience.
“Life: A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
The story has six very different main characters, mirroring the six characteristics in the definition of life given here. Each plays a vital part in this book, and each comes to life. They are ordinary people who live in and endure extraordinary circumstances, forced to make decisions that can mean life or death for themselves and the people around them. Consequently, they have all made good and bad decisions. Sometimes, they are aware of the consequences their actions would have; other times, they aren’t. So I was taken on an emotional rollercoaster ride, experiencing both their bittersweet ups and tragic downs.
A small drawback was that in addition to all the main characters, there were also quite a few minor characters. Combining this with numerous jumps in time—mainly between 1994 and 2004—meant that I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of events and people and how they were all connected. It helped me to read up on Chechen history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to better understand what exactly was going on.
This book is a very impressive debut novel. Thankfully, the often overwhelming sadness of the story itself was interspersed with moments of hope and humanity. It was satisfying to see how believably the threads of the different stories came together in the end. If you enjoyed Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, I think you’ll enjoy this (considerably longer) book as well.
*I received a copy of the book from the publisher.