Friday, October 25, 2013


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra, Crown Publishing, 2013, 400 pp

Thanks to Tina's Reading Group, I read this excellent first novel sooner rather than later. It has a lot going for it but most of all it is excellently written with wonderfully drawn characters and is readable without being dumbed down in any way. Everyone in the reading group loved it which is sometimes the death knell of discussion, but we talked about it for a good hour or more.

The story is set in Chechnya, after two decades of war. The characters are mostly inhabitants of a small village meaning they have lived through all the horrors and know each other well. An excellent device because the history of Chechnya is long and vast. Instead of a historical novel, Marra gives us the effects of that history on these individuals, making it come alive for readers who live far away and know little or nothing about the place.

According to the author, that was his intention. He is an American, well educated, so how did he do it? He studied for a time in Russia, he spent time in Chechnya, he read (in Russian) everything he could about the place, and discovered there was not a single novel about it in English. So he wrote one.

The main characters:

Eight-year-old Havaa, orphaned by the conflict and hunted by an informer who lives right there in her village.

Akhmed, an incompetent doctor but accomplished artist, who protects and ultimately saves Havaa.

Sonja, a fearsomely great surgeon, who is keeping the one hospital in the area open to treat the wounded and who, against her will and reason, helps Havaa.

The informer, the villain of the piece, though the actual villain is a condition called war, who became who he is due to various complicated factors, all of which are revealed.

It is common in contemporary novels to have a plot that floats in time with much nonlinear jumping around. If we are voracious readers, we have gotten used to it but it is not always done well. Anthony Marra does it throughout his novel but masterfully and only to illuminate the characters, their inner lives, motives and frailties. No sooner does he get you wondering why a character is behaving a certain way than he takes you back and shows you why.

I came to the end feeling I knew Chechnya, its history and peoples and possible future much better than I should have after only 400 pages, a bit of map study and a brief look at Wikipedia. I also knew more about love, evil, honor, and sacrifice. That is amazing!

(A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It will be released in paperback in January, 2014.)


  1. Nice review. Yeah I got pretty caught up in the characters of it, mainly the doctor Sonja and her sister Natalie. What a devastating ending on that storyline. And I was revolted by the informer. In ways it was about people (sisters, father-sons etc) who were close to one another but couldn't communicate well or had lost communication with each other. Everyone in it had lost someone. I kept hoping they wouldn't associate with the informer. It made war feel real & tangible. But still showed how the two men found each other at the landfill and their joy that the child was safe. Thank goodness for that scene of defying the odds against evil and bleakness.

    1. Thanks for your comments. You made me remember the agony and ecstasy I experienced while reading the book.

    2. I think I meant to put Sonja's sister name as Natasha instead of Natalie. Oops. Have you thought about reading Marra's 2nd book -- the recent short story collection? I think I will wait awhile.

    3. I am not much for short stories. I just like novels, so I will probably pass.