A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA
by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, May 7, 2013
Hardcover, 379 pages
Source: TLC Book Tours
Late one snowy night, eight-year-old Havaa’s father, Dokka, is violently taken from their home in a small village in Chechnya as she watches from a hiding place in the woods. Also watching is their neighbor and family friend, Akhmed. Knowing that Dokka has been abducted by the Feds for aiding Chechen rebels and that his daughter is not safe, Akhmed rescues Havaa and takes her to a nearly abandoned hospital in the nearest city, where he hopes the only remaining doctor, Sonja, will allow them refuge.
The overburdened surgeon reluctantly allows them to stay in the partially bombed hospital, partly due to Akhmed’s false claims of being a skilled doctor. In addition to the strain of running a hospital in a war-torn country on her own, Sonja is struggling with the disappearance of her sister, Natasha, a year before.
Meanwhile, Khassan, an elderly pariah who spends his days with a pack of wild dogs, is distressed by the actions of his son, Ramzan, who is the informer whose betrayal led to Dokka’s abduction.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena spans from 1994 to 2004, encompasses two wars, and weaves together the stories of its six main characters, revealing surprising connections between them.
This is a very complex story, and the fragmentation of Marra’s non-linear storytelling sometimes made me confused about where I was in the plot, especially because I don’t really know anything about Chechen history. The concept of weaving these stories together in the context of Chechnya’s wars was very ambitions, and despite my occasional confusion, I think Marra pulled it off really well. The characters’ stories are so intricate, and it was amazing to see the pieces of this story fall into place and fit perfectly together like pieces of a puzzle.
Each character is well developed, and Marra does an excellent job of portraying their multiple dimensions. For example, although we first see Ramzan as a horrible, untrustworthy character who is ready to inform on any villager who crosses him, the reader eventually sees how he came to be that way and must feel sympathy for him. I loved seeing the characters’ histories and relationships unfold as Marra unveiled more and more of their pasts.
Additionally, the writing is rich and beautiful, and I loved basking in Marra’s sentences.
“At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the mast, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”
As I’ve already mentioned, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a very complex novel, and I definitely plan to re-read it so that I can more fully grasp the connections and straighten out the order of events in my head. I thought this was an excellent, compassionate book about the strength of love in the face of war and the meaning of family. This is an impressive debut novel, and I greatly look forward to reading anything Anthony Marra writes in the future.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA GIVEAWAY
The publishers of this book have kindly offered a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to give away. Please note that this giveaway is only open to US/Canadian residents. Sorry, I don’t make the rules!
To enter, leave a comment below letting me know that you would like to enter the giveaway (1 point). Make sure to include your email so I can contact you if you win! You can also earn up to four additional points by:
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Please note which of these points you should earn in your comment. Each point equates to one entry. I will use a numbered Excel spreadsheet and Random.org to choose a winner.
This giveaway will be open until 12 p.m. EST June 6, and I will contact the winner via email as soon as possible. Please note that I will be driving around the American West with limited Internet access when this post goes live, so I may not be able to select the winner immediately. If you win, you have one week to respond to my email with your mailing address, or I will choose a new winner.
This giveaway is now closed. Congrats to the winner, Heather Lindskold!