In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed–a failed physician–to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.
With The English Patient’s dramatic sweep and The Tiger’s Wife’s expert sense of place, Marra gives us a searing debut about the transcendent power of love in wartime, and how it can cause us to become greater than we ever thought possible. (Amazon)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena deserves the adoration it has quickly garnered. It is stunning for many reasons, not least that it is the first published novel from author Anthony Marra, still in his twenties. The only recent parallel that comes to mind is the maturity of Jennifer duBois’ debut A Partial History of Lost Causes.
The subject matter of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is undeniably moving (if not heartbreaking) and the tale particularly enlightening for those with less understanding of the recent history of Chechnya than we should have (myself included). But, it is the framework and lens through which Anthony Marra tells this story that elevates it to what I consider inspired and thought-provoking literature.
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Marra explains the significance of the seemingly obscure title:
The title, Marra explains, is from a medical dictionary definition for life. “Medically speaking, life is structured as the constellation of six vital phenomena; similarly, this novel is structured as the constellation of six point-of-view characters.”
The six vital phenomena are organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. A character within the novel finds solace in this definition.
The foreground story is about what happens to a small group of people over five consecutive days in 2004, but in order to fully understand what has led to these actions, Marra explores each of the characters’ pasts. These reflective accounts span the decade 1994 to 2004. A handy timeline graphic at the beginning of each chapter assists the reader gain their bearings as the narration switches back and forth.
The back story is revealed slowly from each characters viewpoint, but the depth of understanding of what transpired and the kaleidoscopic character development this framework provides the attentive reader is ample reward for the time invested.
She marked the days, but time didn’t march forward; instead it turned from day to night, from hospital to flat, from cries to silence, from claustrophobia to loneliness and back again, like a coin flipping from side to side. Happiness came in moments of unpredictable loveliness. The blind man who played accordion for her as she splinted the broken leg of his guide dog. The boy who narrated his dreams while recovering from meningitis.
I was also impressed by the haunting and ghostly weight Marra imbues in his characters, and the legacy of history itself, by referring in the present tense to what a particular character will be doing ‘x’ years in the future – a technique difficult to explain but extremely effective.
I have the deepest respect for Anthony Marra’s talent as a writer, and found myself highlighting passage after passage. His prose is lyrical without ever becoming flowery; artistic and cinematic in places without losing sight of its purpose and sense of dignity.
While this novel contains some confronting descriptions of the senseless physical brutality inflicted in war time, this subject matter is balanced by noting the light humans can find in the darkest of circumstances. Take this conversation between world weary doctor Sonja and the eight-year-old Havaa:
“How do you know what a sea anemone is, anyway? The nearest sea is a few countries over.”
“My father told me. He’s an arborist. He knows everything about trees. I’m still a minimalist.”
“Do you know what that is?”
Havaa nodded, expecting the question. “It’s a nicer way to say you have nothing.”
“Did your father tell you that?”
Again, she nodded…
And ironic and dark humoured quips such as,
Then Brezhnev grabbed the wheel of power and captained the country with the exploratory heart of a municipal bus driver.
From there she gleaned what information she could from the outside world. Porous enough to allow luxury cars, American cigarettes, and Russian firearms, the borders remained too dense for objective journalism.
I only wish I had begun the novel with a greater understanding of the political factions and key figures that influenced the region during the time. While that level of knowledge is not by any means required to appreciate it, I think there is even greater comedic value woven into the fabric of this novel for those that do.
Marra has worked hard at objectively framing his prose in order to sustain impartiality in respect to cultures involved, and more specifically the characters in the novel representing them. While maintaining the deepest respect for the peoples’ unimaginable suffering, this filter of impartiality also honed the resonance of the novel’s key messages – no individual, culture or ruling power is wholly good or wholly evil, wholly right or wholly wrong; war is futile; humanity itself will be the ultimate victor.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra does what great literature should – it makes us reflect upon what it means to be human and the value and resilience of our legacy.
I look forward to reading anything Marra publishes in the future.
BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5
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Genre: Historical, Drama, Literature
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Author Information: Anthony Marra was born in Washington, D.C. He has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Narrative Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading. In 2012, he received the Whiting Writers’ Award. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he will begin teaching as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction this fall. He has studied and resided in Eastern Europe, travelled through Chechnya, and now lives in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his first novel, will be published in fifteen countries.
– Check out Anthony Marra’s website
– Anthony Marra talks about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena with NPR
* My receiving a copy of this book free for review purposes did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions on this title.