A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

by Anthony Marra

(Hogarth, $26, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

For a young and assuredly upcoming writer, Anthony Marra has already won a number of prestigious prizes. Among them are The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Narrative Prize, a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize. He was included in the 2012 of “Best American Nonrequired Reading” anthology, earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, where “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is set, and he lives in Oakland, CA.

What is this book about?

Taking place over five harrowing days during the 2004 war in Chechnya, but spanning events over 11 years and looking to the future, it is about a little girl hiding from the Russian forces who have already taken her father; the neighbor and failed village doctor who helps her flee and Sonya, a Russian who is the last surviving doctor at the local and now destroyed hospital who encounters little Havaa and weary Akhmed. Harboring them is dangerous, but in the midst of war and betrayal, basic humanity demands that they help one another.

Why you’ll like it:

Most Americans know next to nothing about Chechnya. Besides being a gripping and moving historical novel, “A Constellation” will open the doors to this little-known place.

Here is what Marra wrote in the Wall Street Journal about why he set his debut novel there:

“Ever since studying in Russia as a college student, I had been in a long-distance, one-sided love affair with Chechnya’s remarkable history, culture and rugged natural beauty.

He told an Amazon.com interviewer:

“Chechnya is a corner of the world largely mysterious to most Americans, yet it’s a remarkable place populated with remarkable people who have become accustomed to repeatedly rebuilding their lives. To quote Tobias Wolff, “We are made to persist…that’s how we find out who we are.” These characters commit acts of courage, betrayal, and forgiveness as they persist in saving what means most to them—be it their families, their honor, or themselves—from the destruction of war.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “Marra’s sobering, complex debut intertwines the stories of a handful of characters at the end of the second war in bleak, apocalyptic Chechnya. Though the novel spans 11 years, the story traces five days in 2004 following the arrest of Dokka, a villager from the small Muslim village of Eldar. His eight-year-old daughter escapes, and is rescued by Dokka’s friend Akhmed, the village doctor, who entrusts her to the care of Sonja, the lone remaining doctor at a nearby hospital. Why Akhmed feels responsible for Haava and chooses Sonja, an ethnic Russian keeping a vigil for her missing sister, as her guardian is one of many secrets; years of Soviet rule and the chaos of war have left these people unaccustomed to honesty. Marra, a Stegner Fellow, writes dense prose full of elegant detail about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war. Marra’s deliberate withholding of narrative detail makes the characters opaque, until all is revealed, in a surprisingly hopeful way, but there’s pleasure in reconstructing the meaning in reverse. As Akhmed says to Sonja, “The whole book is working toward the last page.”

Says Booklist in a starred review:  “In this extraordinary first novel, Marra homes in on a people and a region that barely register with most Americans and, in heartrending prose, makes us feel their every misfortune. In rural Chechnya, during the second war, a small group of people struggle to survive in the bleakest of circumstances. A gifted surgeon works tirelessly in a crumbling hospital, hardening her heart so that she can perform her gruesome work. An eight-year-old girl who has already seen too much is being hunted by the government ever since the night her father was abducted by Russian soldiers. An incompetent doctor who longed to be an artist paints portraits of 41 neighbors who were killed by government forces and hangs them in the doorways and trees of his ruined village. And a lonely man, once brutally tortured, turns government informant to obtain the insulin needed by his diabetic father, who, in turn, refuses to speak to him. Marra collapses time, sliding between 1996 and 2004 while also detailing events in a future yet to arrive, giving his searing novel an eerie, prophetic aura. All of the characters are closely tied together in ways that Marra takes his time revealing, even as he beautifully renders the way we long to connect and the lengths we will go to endure.”

In The New York Times,  Dwight Garner writes: “The strange and invigorating thing about Mr. Marra’s novel…is how much human warmth and comedy he smuggles, like samizdat, into his busy story. At heart he’s a satirist, a lover not a fighter, a prose writer who resembles the Joseph Heller of Catch-22 and the Jonathan Safran Foer of Everything Is Illuminated…A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless. It’s humane and absurd, and rarely out of touch with the Joseph-Heller-like notion that, as Mr. Marra puts it, “stupidity was the single abiding law of the universe.”

Ron Charles says in The Washington Post: “Anthony Marra’s first novel…is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles…a testament to the vibrancy of contemporary fiction. Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important…I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years…you simply must read this book.”

When is it available?              

You can borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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