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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7
Hardcover, $26,  400 pages $26

Stories of people living in war-torn countries can be harrowing and emotional, especially when innocent civilians are the main characters. Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls set during the genocide in Syria in 1915 is one such novel, made more poignant by the ongoing civil war there.  Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, covers the years 1994-2004, which encompasses two wars in Chechnya, as they fought the Russians for their freedom.

The title refers to the definition of life in The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians.  Life: a constellation of vital phenomena- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. By that definition, this beautifully crafted novel is full of life.

Sonja is a young surgeon who left Chechnya and her younger sister Natasha behind to study medicine in London. Natasha disappears, and ends up in the sex slave trade as she tried to escape the civil war in Chechnya. Sonja returns home to look for her sister.

Sonja works at Hospital #6, one the few buildings not bombed out during the first war. When Sonja saves the life of a man whose brother is a gangster, she is able to get supplies to keep the hospital running, along with two older nurses.

Natasha eventually comes home, completely traumatized by her experiences. It breaks Sonja's heart to see her sister, and she feels helpless and guilty about what happened to Natasha. After a long time, Natasha comes to work at the hospital too, helping women deliver their babies.

By the time the second war has begun, Ramzan, a young man from a nearby village has begun informing on his neighbors to the Russian soldiers. His father, Khassan, is devastated by his son's behavior and refuses to speak to him. Ramzan has informed on his friend Dokka, a man who has taken in many refugees as they make their way to the camps.

Dokka's home is burned down and he is taken away to the Landfill, a Dante's Inferno-like place where disappeared people wait to be questioned and tortured. Dokka's eight-year-old daughter Havaa has escaped, but the Russians want her too. Akhmed, another neighbor who is the village doctor, finds Havaa and hides her at the hospital.

The story shifts back and forth over the years, and we see how these character's lives are surprisingly entwined. The writing is beautiful, and the imagery Marra uses is stunning. This paragraph in particular is so vivid.
"No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded shells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa's parents, among other villagers, pried toilet bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and dragged them upside down and two by two gently set them over the unexploded shells. Havaa would never forget the sight. So many dozens of upside-down toilets bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn't pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke."
There are so many brilliant scenes in this book, and I learned so many things I wish no one had to know, like how people would sew their names and addresses inside their hems so that their bodies would be sent back to the families, and Havaa saving a frozen bug in her pocket so that she would have something to eat later.

As Akhmed watched the nurse emptying the pockets of dead people looking for ID cards, he thinks,
"It was a simple gesture, no more than a flick of her fingers, performed without malice or contempt, but with complete disinterest, and it cut through Akhmed like a fin through water. In her indifference he saw the truth of a world he didn't want to believe in, one in which a human being could be discarded as easily as pocket lint."
This novel took my breath away. Marra empathetically tells the story of these people, and how life has forced them to adapt to a situation not of their making, and he contrasts the horror with the tenderness of humanity. Reading this made me hope to not be so judgmental of others as we see things are not always what they appear to be here.

This is not a book you can read in one sitting. You read a little, close the book, contemplate and digest it, and then go back for more. I did not want it to end, yet felt an overwhelming need to know how the stories of these people finished. Quite simply, every human being should read this haunting, amazing book.

rating 5 of 5
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing a copy of the book. You can enter to win a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena provided by the publisher by commenting below; be sure to leave your email address. A winner will be randomly chosen on May 24th.

Other stops on the tour:

Monday, May 6th:  An Excellent Library
Tuesday, May 7th:  Caribousmom
Wednesday, May 8th:  A Bookish Affair
Friday, May 10th:  Unabridged Chick
Monday, May 13th:  Book Hooked Blog
Tuesday, May 14th:  Broken Teepee
Wednesday, May 15th:  BookChickDi
Thursday, May 16th:  The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Friday, May 17th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Monday, May 20th:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, May 21st:  Speaking of Books
Wednesday, May 22nd:  Chaotic Compendiums
Thursday, May 23rd:  Knowing the Difference
Friday, May 24th:  The Relentless Reader
Tuesday, May 28th:  Book Chatter
Thursday, May 30th:  Books Speak Volumes
Monday, June 3rd:  Booklover Book Reviews
Wednesday, June 5th:  Rhapsody in Books
Thursday, June 6th:  Luxury Reading
Read an excerpt from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena here.  


  1. Oh, I want to read this book so much! Every review I've read has praised it.


    Also, I just discovered your blog, thanks to TLC Book Tours. I'll subscribe by email.

  2. This book sounds amazing! I'm always searching for new material, and this sounds like something I would definitely read!


  3. "Quite simply, every human being should read this haunting, amazing book."
    Oh yes, very definitely one of those books. Haunting is a perfect adjective as I'm still thinking about it today.
    Enjoyed your review :)

  4. 5 out of 5 is quite a fantastic rating! I can't wait to read this book myself.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  5. Thank you for my copy of this book. Frankly, I didn't read your review before I read it. Book reviews always tell me more than I want to know before I've read a book myself. But I finished this book today and just now read your review. It's excellent.

    I tried to write a review and couldn't. The book is so unique, I didn't know how to describe it without telling the story, which I try not to do. This is all I could come up with:

    Simply put, I think I've found the best book of 2013. It's even better than that for me.

    How to adequately review A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA? The setting is Chechnya during 1993 through 2004. This is about life there. and life is defined as "a constellation of vital phenomena." This is so unique that I can't do it justice. This story is more than I expected. Can anyone read this and remain unaffected?

    I won my copy of this book through a TLC Book Tour on http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com