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In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: Harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
This novel's been mentioned on a few "best of 2013" lists and I think it well deserves the honor. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra explores the emotional complexities of life in a war-plagued place, as the upheaval of conflict and death reshape the ties of family, friends, neighbors, and tradition. The setting is Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, a period that included two nasty wars between Russian government forces and Chechen separatists. Because of the ties of the rebels to Islamic extremism, I believe, the US media never took much interest in the strife, much less its impact on the lives of regular people.
It's those lives that Marra focuses on. The narrative begins in 2004, with a man named Akhmed watching Russian soldiers abduct his neighbor, who has already lost all his fingers to a previous interrogation by state security. Left behind is the neighbor's young daughter, who has escaped into the woods with a mysterious blue suitcase. Akhmed takes the girl to the only safe place he knows, the hospital in town. There, he meets Sonja, a cynical, exhausted ethnic Russian surgeon who spends her days amputating limbs shredded by landmines and is the last competent medical professional around. I say "competent" because Akhmed is himself a doctor, but one who, to his own shame, finished in the bottom tenth of his class and excels more at his true passion, painting. He's unable to help even his own wife, who's bedridden with a wasting disease.
Such are the contradictions at the hearts of the characters, who are gradually revealed through a non-linear narrative that travels back and forth through time to unpeel the layers of their backstories, connections, and secrets. We also come to know Khassan, a WWII veteran who has spent the past few decades of his life writing a history of the Chechen people (and rewriting it, each time official guidelines change); Khassan's son, Ramzan, who turned informer for the Russians and hasn't been spoken to since by the father he provides for; and Sonya's sister, Natasha, who remained behind to endure her own horrors after Sonya went to medical school in Britain.
There's both absurdity and fragile beauty in the story's small details. Akhmed is committed to painting portraits of the disappeared, which he leaves around town -- though he adds a long nostril hair to one vain woman's face, because she died still owing him money. There's some confusion between a former US president and the mascot of McDonalds, leading to the great line "I may be an idiot, but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown". Two people in a truck argue over which dead radio station has the most pleasing static. An imam imprisoned in a landfill pit gives funerals for his fellow prisoners the moment after they ascend a long ladder heavenward, disappearing from view into the hands of their executioners.
At the core of this book are the human entanglements that extend before and after wartime, but are complicated by its chaos, with people's faults and virtues both magnified. Actions motivated by pride, guilt, trauma, resentment, and shame become difficult to distinguish from those motivated by love. Even Ramzan, the informer, becomes sympathetic, when later chapters uncover a costly act of courage in his past, and whose sins, as an old proverb goes, are tied up with the sins of the father. Marra occasionally interrupts the narrative to give us little vignettes about incidental characters, a technique that's slightly distracting, but adds to a pervading sense that nothing happens in isolation from everything else. Our connections often seem to be subjective constellations, but that doesn't stop them from being. I admired his unusual choice to project a few threads decades into the future, a reminder that life will go on, with its cargo of good and terrible memories.
A beautiful, bleak, affecting work of literary fiction, and one that got me a little teary-eyed at the end. My recommendation has some caveats: the scenes of brutality might be a little tough for some readers, and the sometimes confusing web of links between characters and events requires careful attention. I also can't comment on how true-to-life the novel's details are, having been written by an American whose knowledge of place can only be secondary, but whatever blemishes might be in the brush strokes, the overall picture reaches towards a universal statement. 4.5 stars.
I didn't find Colette Whitaker to be a remarkable audio reader, but nothing about her performance bothered me, either.
19 of 19 people found this review helpful
This is a powerful book, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hopeful. As the two doctors, Sonja and Akhmed, save Havaa, a young girl caught in the horrors of the Chechnyan wars after her father is abducted, we learn to love and hate the characters around her, while also recognizing that they are all caught in their own nightmares. The characters are complex and none of them is always what we expect, thus making the book continually interesting to read, not always to know what comes next (although that's important too) but also to learn what came before.
Marra uses foreshadowing to help reassure us that some characters will actually outlive the horror, thus making the unspeakable realities of the war somewhat easier to read. Nevertheless, the descriptions of what takes place at "the Landfill" are horrific and disturbing. How can people treat each other this way? Can this be real? How do people face such horror and live? What is life?
But live, they do, and interact. They eat and play and make love and survive. They build on their past and build towards a future. In the end, there is triumph and we are reminded that Life--a constellation of vital pheonomena--carries for all of us happiness and sadness, birth and death.
12 of 12 people found this review helpful
I didn't love this book like everyone else did, but I do feel like I should have. I'm just not as big on the big interlocking short story book (meaning that this was a series of stories about the lives of the characters in this book, not pulling together the way they do in a big epic, but rather connected the way stars are, because we see the connection, we see the pattern even if it is random), and that is what this felt like to me. But I did love some of the thoughts that were universal, and not just applicable in war torn Chechnya, especially this one as it applies to the way we humans interweave and support each other or not: “Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” I am also glad I learned more about that conflict.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
In spite of the bleak setting for this book, every piece of this story is incredibly beautiful. Subtle, wonderful prose, and pure delight at every word.
I adore this story & it is a new favourite, one of the most beautiful books I've read. I'm so pleased I picked it up.
If you enjoyed Kite Runner & A Thousand Splendid Suns I am certain you will enjoy this book. I can't recommend it highly enough.
The narrator did a wonderful job in my opinion.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
The title of this novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" was borrowed from a Russian Medical Dictionary; it was the definition listed under the entry for the word "Life". The definition strikes me as inexplicably lyrical and poetic; making it a fitting title to this impressive work.
Marra's book is all about life; not just the lives of the main characters we follow throughout the book, but also of a full constellation of lives that orbit them. The lives of an embittered nurse, once jilted by an oncologist. A six year old in Manchester, England, who desperately wanted to avoid another hand-me-down. A neighbor; an elderly woman who believes she gets daily visitations from "ghosts, angels, prophets and monsters". A swarthy, opportunist smuggler who does good deeds for the doctor who saved her brother's life - explaining that even though the brother in question was most definitely his least favorite of six brothers, had remembered to feed his pet turtle once as a child; so a favor was still owed for his life. From these characters and countless more, the constellation is formed.
The last word of the title, phenomena, is defined as "a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen". And with that, the story takes form; as we learn how the full constellation of characters came to either be where they are, or end up where they will, based on the vital facts and situations of their lives.
Other reviewers have discussed that the story was depressing, the torture brutal, the characters sad. They definitely have very valid points; but I somehow didn't find the book too depressing. I was struck by the flashes of normalcy despite the terrible circumstances, the unexpected humor, and the strong underlying current of innate goodness and dignity that ran through the main characters we followed.
In an interview, the author Anthony Marra shared, "I knew early on that though the novel was set against a backdrop of war, it would be a book about recovery rather than destruction, about surgeons rather than soldiers." That is the feeling the story left me with.
17 of 19 people found this review helpful
This is one of the most difficult reviews that I can remember writing. I am extremely conflicted about Anthony Marra's debut novel. My head pulls me in one direction, but my gut pulls me in another: which way should I go? and where should I start?
There are many gushing reviews here already, and most of them repeat the plot outline and character descriptions. I will avoid those routes as much as possible; read elsewhere if that is what you seek.
Let's start with the points of conflict.
1) Marra's prose is stunningly beautiful. Marra's prose is too stunningly beautiful.
How can that be? Well, at many points in the novel, I simply got lost in it, more caught up in the turn of phrase, the image, the way a sentence seemed to meander on forever, leaving me with a sense of anticipation, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for that exquisite final . . . what, exactly? The end of the sentence? And where were we, and what was happening to . . which character was that again? In other words, while, overall, I greatly admire Marra's mastery of language and can point to a number of exquisite and even perfect passages, I sometimes felt that style conquered substance. I'm well aware that this opinion deviates from the popular one, but there it is. A few readers have complained that the book is unnecessarily long, mainly due to lengthy 'poetic' descriptions, and I'm leaning towards agreement with them.
2) The events in the book and the connections among the characters are believable. Most of the events in the book are believable, but there are way too many extraordinary coincidences.
The horrors of the Chechnyan wars, the killings, the torture, the missing, the betrayals of friends and family members are, as depicted, all too real. Marra gives us the worst of human nature and the lengths to which we will go to preserve our own lives. And he also gives us moments of hope, generosity, and selflessness--the other side of the coin. But the coincidences seemed stretched. For example: The missing sister of Sonja, the female Russian doctor, just happens to have been the nurse who eight years earlier delivered the infant Havaa, the girl now brought to Sonja by Ahkmed, the Chechan doctor who just started working for her, who happened to be at the birth with his friend Dokka, the new father, who also happened several years later to shelter this same nurse in his home when she was a refugee . . . I know the population was cut down significantly in a decade of wars, but I just didn't buy this, or several other similar circumstances.
3) The characterizations were brilliant.
No argument here. Even the most reprehensible characters, such as Ramzan the informer, were thoroughly and believably developed in such a way that I had to empathize with their motives, even when I did not agree with them. I loved Ahkmed, the character whose loyalties were the most divided but at the same time the most clear, and Khassan, the aged historian who loved, pitied, and hated his son and struggled every minute to determine the moral right. Even the minor characters were unique individuals, carefully drawn and memorable.
4) The book taught me a lot that I didn't know about the Chechan wars. The book really didn't teach me anything about the Chechan wars.
War is hell. The Chechan wars were hell. I still don't have a really clear idea of what caused them or the ideology of the opposing sides.
That's probably enough to draw this to a conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed the book (although "enjoyed" seems like the wrong word for a novel in which there is so much suffering; maybe I should say that I admired it or was completely engrossed with it). There were, however, several rather long stretches that seemed to drag on forever. It took me quite awhile to finish the book, but the last third or so went really fast. I'm giving it a 4-star rating--which is open to change upon reflection, but I feel pretty sure that it will stand. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena certainly gets my recommendation, and I look forward to Marra's next effort.
On the reader: I thought she did a good job. Some reviewers complained that her voice was too monotone, but I did not find this to be the case. She has the right tone for a story that is, after all, mostly serious, and she did well with the various accents.
24 of 28 people found this review helpful
First time author, debut novel. The author got his MFA from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa and is now a professor at Stanford in their Creative Writing program. I'm still scratching my head a bit as to why an American author would choose to write this story set in Chechnya other than not many others do. I am a curious reader/listener wanting to know about other ways of life, other times. other places. This book certainly fit that bill. Told from the perspective of two people, on an native, ethnic Russian and the other a native Muslim, it weaves a story giving the historical perspective of Chechnya and its trials and tribulations of which there are many. This book didn't make me want to go visit, if anything it tells about an area in Russia that wants to be an independent country but likely never will be. This book isn't a thriller by any means and I'm glad I'm not from there. Still, it did educate me on Chechnya and the story was interesting.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
The setting and characters were well portrayed and complex. Listening to the story during my commute was difficult as the plot skipped back and forth over time in various locations. The occasional repetition of phrases was annoying on tape. Probably effective in print.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
First the gorgeous: There are some phrases and sentences in this book that are so impeccably written that I had to stop and listen to them again. Marra's writing skills are absolutely first rate. The complexity of the relationships and the way he foreshadows events is artfully done. It's brilliant, really. There's nothing about this that feels like a first book. It's really beautifully crafted.
The heartbreaking: It's impossible to put a child in the midst of a brutal war and have anything but heartbreak. But it goes beyond that. There just isn't a part of this story that doesn't have an element of profound loss. I didn't find any of it uplifting as others have mentioned in reviews.
And now about the confusing part: I had a terrible time keeping up with the changes in time. The complexity of the relationships is difficult to track in and of itself. I listened twice simply because I missed too much the first time. I am a hardcore book listener and rarely do I think a book would be better in print - but this is that rare exception. I needed to be able to flip between pages sometimes and I couldn't.
Now the narration ... I won't call it awful, but it is so uninspired. This book deserved something better than that. It's competent, but adds nothing to the experience and may even make it more difficult to track.
14 of 18 people found this review helpful
Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
This was a difficult book to follow with the many changes of time in the story. It might be easier to follow if you were actually reading it and could flip back and get clear on where and what was happening.
What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
It was interesting to learn a lot more than I know about the two Chechan Wars. But it was also a depressing book and some days I was just not up to listening.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be better than the print version?
The narration was at times off putting, probably as a British listener I found certain pronounciation points jarred, and the lack of narrative inflexion made it more difficult to follow than it needed to be.
What did you like best about this story?
The story itself was excellent with great structure and layering of different perspectives.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No, but I did finish it after our book club meeting as recommended by others, and it was well worth it.
Any additional comments?
Loved the story but this was the first time I felt let down by the weakness in narration.