Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else . . . Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?
Last week I wrote about my favorite book titles. What could be a better title than Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena? This novel — the most powerful I’ve read in years — is set in Chechnya during the two recent wars that ravaged that country. Two doctors — Sonja, an ethnic Russian, and Akhmed, a Chechen villager — endanger their own lives to save the life of Havaa, a little girl whose home has been burned and whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers. The title comes from a definition of life in a Russian medical textbook:
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
As Anthony Marra points out in an interview with Jill Owens of Powell’s Books, “There are six point-of-view characters in the novel. Life is structured as an intersection and a constellation, really, of these six vital phenomena. The novel was structured as a constellation of these six characters, and as soon as I saw it, I just had to use this as the title.”
Recently, at a staff meeting at our store, each bookseller agreed to read one newly released paperback that no one else on staff had yet read. We’re all avid readers, of course, but sometimes we get in a rut and all read the same books. We recommend them to each other as well as to customers — and before you know it, five booksellers have read (and are all recommending) A Tale for the Time Being. I’d read many rave reviews of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Ron Charles of the Washington Post: “I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book”) and I was intrigued — but a little intimidated by the fact that it takes place in Chechnya. I am embarrassed to admit that all I knew about Chechnya that it was a former Soviet republic and that the Boston marathon bombers came from there. I vaguely knew that a war had recently taken place in Chechnya, but I had no idea there were two separate wars.
The setting is very important to me in fiction — nearly as important as the characters. I dislike books that are set in an indeterminate setting. Case in point: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obrecht, another novel about a doctor trying to save lives during a modern war. Why is it set in an unnamed Balkan country? I wanted to know what Balkan country. It sounded like Croatia — but for some reason, the author withheld the crucial details that would confirm that it actually was Croatia. I don’t mind a totally imaginary setting — Narnia, Hogwarts and Middle Earth all seem very real to me — but I find hybrid real/imaginary settings frustrating and distracting. (Why, for example, does Scott Turow set his books in Kindle County? Why not Cook County?) The details of a place help amplify the themes of the novel, making them more universal. As a reader, I can anchor myself in a specific setting and then allow myself to explore the novel without wondering where it is taking place.
Part of the joy of reading for me comes from learning about the history and culture of unfamiliar places. I’m not the only American reader who knew very little about Chechnya before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. When asked why the conflict in Chechnya hasn’t been adequately covered in the United States, Marra said:
That idea that the Chechen Wars represent a localized conflict without significance to the larger world isn’t uncommon in the West, and I think it’s resulted in a great cultural shrug toward the region. I’ve never understood that. Chechnya has a remarkable history filled with remarkable people, who in the 19th century inspired such writers as Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin.
I began working on this novel because I was fascinated with Chechnya . . . I couldn’t find a single novel available in English set during the recent Chechen Wars. In that sense, I came to this book as a reader rather than a writer. I wanted to find this novel in a bookstore, but it wasn’t there yet.
Novelist Philip Hensher writes in the Guardian: “Often, when I think of a novel I love, it is not the plot that comes to mind, or even, sometimes, the characters, but the setting.” It’s true — I could describe the China of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth or the New York of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, but I couldn’t possibly tell you much about the characters in those books, or recount their plots. (In the same way, I remember the exact layout of a house I lived in when I was five, but very little of what happened there.)
Jan-Philipp Sendker, a journalist, was inspired to write his lovely novels because of a specific place — Burma. He had never considered writing fiction before, but after a visit to Burma on a journalistic assignment in 1995, his imagination was sparked. The result was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a love story between a blind man and a crippled girl. It’s a story that Jan-Philipp says could only have happened in Burma. The book, written in German, was eventually translated into English and became an American bestseller — as well as one of Lake Forest Book Store’s bestselling books of all time. He visited Lake Forest for a luncheon when The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was published in the United States, and we were thrilled to welcome him back last week when he was on tour for the sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart.
Jan-Philipp had no intention of writing a sequel — and in fact was almost finished with a novel set in China — but while daydreaming in a teahouse in a Burmese village, he became obsessed with the thought of continuing Julia’s story. And while traveling through the country, he encountered a Burmese man who had spent eight years in captivity for crimes he didn’t commit, who explained that only by forgiving his captors could he set himself free. Jan-Philipp put aside the novel he was writing and wrote A Well-Tempered Heart, about what he calls the “difficult art of forgiving”. As I listened to Jan-Philipp describe his travels in Burma and how his novels came to be, I also thought — as I often do at author events — about how lucky readers are, in this digital age, to hear an author speak from the heart. Jan-Philipp told us he’s writing a third book in the series, so we’re hoping he returns to Lake Forest.
I have to mention one more new book in which setting plays a crucial role — Laura McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood. Set in an isolated, unwelcoming small town in the Ozarks, this dark and suspenseful novel tells the story of two missing women — Cheri, a mentally handicapped teenager, and Lila, a young mother. This book, which reminded me a little of Gone Girl, kept me up late at night. I’ve never been to rural Missouri (and after reading this book, I’m not sure I want to!), but I feel as if I’ve been there — and the region seems nearly as foreign as Burma or Chechnya. In an interview with Shelf Awareness, Laura McHugh, who grew up in the Ozarks, explains why she set her book there:
The forbidding landscape and the remoteness of the Ozarks create a sense of foreboding that helps set the tone of the novel. And I’ve always been fascinated by the culture, which is steeped in folk wisdom, home remedies, and superstition. We were outsiders in our tiny town, yet at the same time, it became my home. Years after moving away, I was still haunted by the place, and the novel allowed me to explore the darker side of those tight-knit rural communities where outsiders aren’t welcome.
What’s next for me? I’ve just started The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene, set in familiar territory — New York City and Vermont. (This book is not to be confused with The Headmaster’s Wager or The Headmaster’s Dilemma . . . or two other books called The Headmaster’s Wife.) I’m already finding that while the geography is familiar, the story and the characters are wonderfully surprising.