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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Cover

 

Staff Pick

Life during wartime Chechnya is not easy to read about, but this novel is too beautiful to be depressing, and Marra's skilled plotting pushes you forward heart-first. This is my pick for the best under-the-radar book of 2013.
Recommended by Jen W., Powells.com

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

A Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year * A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa 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 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. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves 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.

Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content from the author.

Review:

“A flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles....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. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book.” Ron Charles, Washington Post

Review:

“Extraordinary...a 21st century War and Peace....Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy.” Madison Smartt Bell, New York Times Book Review

Review:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless....[Marra is] 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.” Dwight Garner, New York Times

Review:

“Over and over again, this is an examination of the ways in which many broken pieces come together to make a new whole. In exquisite imagery, Marra tends carefully to the twisted strands of grace and tragedy....Everything in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena...is dignified with a hoping, aching heartbeat.” Ramona Ausubel, San Francisco Chronicle

Review:

“A powerful tale....The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa…rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force....There are many reasons to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena...to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs....But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances.”John Freeman, Boston Globe

Review:

“[A Constellation of Vital Phenomena] pulls together blown-out bits of a world turned inside-out to create a brutal form of beauty from chaos...its prose is also ruefully funny in places and littered throughout with dazzling poetry.” John Barron, Chicago Tribune

Review:

“Marra is trying to capture some essence of the lives of men and women caught in the pincers of a brutal, decade-long war, and at this he succeeds beautifully...his storytelling impulses are fed by wellsprings of generosity...[the] ending is almost certain to leave you choked up and, briefly at least, transformed by tenderness.” Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Review:

“Extraordinary....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.” Booklist (starred review)

Review:

“[A]n authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime....As he shifts in time through the years of the two Chechen wars, Marra confidently weaves those plots together, and several more besides, giving each character a rich backstory that intersects, often years down the line, with the others....[T]he novel’s tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances.” Library Journal (starred review)

Review:

“A complex debut...[Marra writes] with elegant details about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

About the Author

Anthony Marra is the New York Times bestselling author of a National Book Awards Longlist selection, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Marra holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

julieb43, September 28, 2014 (view all comments by julieb43)
Although the subject matter is grim (the Chechen war), the author weaves the story with such beauty and magic that the reader cannot help but smile through the tears.

Each character is fully drawn, giving us a sense of his hopes, fears, and way of life. Horrors abound throughout the story, but somehow shreds of dignity and love prevail amongst the characters.

The only small drawback for me was the circling back and forth to tell the story--it can get confusing at times because of the large cast of characters. The strength of the writing, however, as well as the powerful story itself kept me reading.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
librariphile, August 2, 2014 (view all comments by librariphile)
LOVED this book! The story -- the constellation -- is brilliantly told and it stuck with me for a long time after reading it. I can't recommend it enough.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(0 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
Ryan DeJonghe, June 24, 2014 (view all comments by Ryan DeJonghe)
After Anthony Marra finished his first draft of A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, he printed it out and started re-typing the entire thing. He did this after typing the second and third drafts, too. He typed this entire novel, cover-to-cover, four times in total. To say he is worthy of all the awards he has received would be an understatement. This is a beautiful, potentially life-changing novel, well-worded and exquisite throughout.


Marra said his goal was to produce laughter and tears within the same page. To an extent, yes, but don’t go expecting rainbows, kittens, and butterflies. This is Chechnya circa 2004. People here are identified by which body parts are still intact. If you have all ten of your fingers, you are a rare and beautiful specimen. The scene is grim, but Marra is right, there’s still plenty to smile about.


Despite feeling third world (the high value of an autograph of a formerly fat person; Soviet constructed toilet bowels covering unexploded bomb shells) this novel paints a contrast with the mysterious modern world outside of their grasp (is the President of America Ronald McDonald?; what is this Amazon that underworld members can produce books from?). It may feel old, but the real tragedy is the life-altering wars that take place in our world today…so many ignored.


The stories tie together to paint the beauty of life and the importance of family. The title is taken from one character’s medical journal, under the entry for “life”. Life is defined as, “a constellation of vital phenomena��"organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” This is shown throughout Marra’s book. The characters evolve with growth. Though their livelihoods are torn asunder, their spirit holds fast to that which is most precious: their hopes, their futures, and their family. Even the most apparently vial of characters has something to share.


Though the flashbacks may at times seem irksome, they are excellent tools that reveal some of the most surprising secrets. And though not the most happy of endings (again, Chechnya circa 2004), the way the author ties it all together is one of the most unique methods I’ve seen employed. This is an emotionally moving masterpiece in the hands of a skilled author.


Thanks to the folks at Hogarth, Crown, and Random House for sending this book. I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.
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(4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780770436421
Author:
Marra, Anthony
Publisher:
Hogarth
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Literary
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20140204
Binding:
Paperback
Language:
English
Pages:
416

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena New Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$15.00 In Stock
Product details 416 pages Hogarth - English 9780770436421 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Life during wartime Chechnya is not easy to read about, but this novel is too beautiful to be depressing, and Marra's skilled plotting pushes you forward heart-first. This is my pick for the best under-the-radar book of 2013.

"Review" by , “A flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles....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. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book.”
"Review" by , “Extraordinary...a 21st century War and Peace....Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy.”
"Review" by , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless....[Marra is] 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.”
"Review" by , “Over and over again, this is an examination of the ways in which many broken pieces come together to make a new whole. In exquisite imagery, Marra tends carefully to the twisted strands of grace and tragedy....Everything in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena...is dignified with a hoping, aching heartbeat.”
"Review" by , “A powerful tale....The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa…rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force....There are many reasons to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena...to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs....But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances.”
"Review" by , “[A Constellation of Vital Phenomena] pulls together blown-out bits of a world turned inside-out to create a brutal form of beauty from chaos...its prose is also ruefully funny in places and littered throughout with dazzling poetry.”
"Review" by , “Marra is trying to capture some essence of the lives of men and women caught in the pincers of a brutal, decade-long war, and at this he succeeds beautifully...his storytelling impulses are fed by wellsprings of generosity...[the] ending is almost certain to leave you choked up and, briefly at least, transformed by tenderness.”
"Review" by , “Extraordinary....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.”
"Review" by , “[A]n authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime....As he shifts in time through the years of the two Chechen wars, Marra confidently weaves those plots together, and several more besides, giving each character a rich backstory that intersects, often years down the line, with the others....[T]he novel’s tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances.”
"Review" by , “A complex debut...[Marra writes] with elegant details about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war.”
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