The Fictioning Horror Sale
 
 

Recently Viewed clear list


Original Essays | September 17, 2014

Merritt Tierce: IMG Has My Husband Read It?



My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
  1. $16.77 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Love Me Back

    Merritt Tierce 9780385538077

spacer
Qualifying orders ship free.
$15.00
New Trade Paper
Ships in 1 to 3 days
Add to Wishlist
Qty Store Section
6 Airport Featured Titles- General
6 Beaverton DISP- MALL TBL
4 Beaverton Literature- A to Z
8 Burnside DISP- 527&529/EC527/529EndCap
17 Burnside STAFF PICKS- GREEN
8 Burnside Literature- A to Z
5 Hawthorne Literature- A to Z
25 Local Warehouse Literature- A to Z
62 Local Warehouse Featured Titles- Literature
25 Remote Warehouse Literature- A to Z

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

2004

On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we should go," he said, but neither moved.

The snow softened around their boots as they stared across the street to the wide patch of flattened ash. A few orange embers hissed in pools of gray snow, but all else was char. Not seven years earlier, Akhmed had helped Dokka build an addition so the girl would have a room of her own. He had drawn the blueprints and chopped the hardwood and cut it into boards and turned them into a room; and when Dokka had promised to help him build an addition to his own house, should he ever have a child, Akhmed had thanked his friend and walked home, the knot in his throat unraveling into a sob when the door closed behind him. Carrying that lumber the forty meters from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping, but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried the small treasures that had made Dokka's house his own. There was the hand-carved chess set on a round sidetable; when moved, the squat white king wobbled from side to side, like a man just sober enough to stand, and Dokka had named his majesty Boris Yeltsin. There was the porcelain vase adorned with Persian arabesques, and beside that a cassette deck-radio with an antenna long enough to scrape the ceiling when propped up on a telephone book, yet too short to reach anything but static. There was the eighty-five-year-old Qur'an, the purple cover writhing with calligraphy, that Dokka's grandfather had purchased in Mecca. There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn't distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur'an and telephone directory returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke.

The girl's fingers braceleted his wrist. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and sprint northward until the forest swallowed the village, but standing before the blackened timbers, he couldn't summon the strength to bring a consoling word to his lips, to hold the girl's hand in his own, to move his feet in the direction he wanted them to go.

"That's my house." Her voice broke their silence and he heard it as he would the only sound in an empty corridor.

"Don't think of it like that," he said.

"Like what?"

"Like it's still yours."

He wound her bright orange scarf around her neck and frowned at the sooty fingerprint on her cheek. He had been awake in bed the previous night when the Feds came. First the murmur of a diesel engine, a low rumble he'd come to fear more than gunfire, then Russian voices. He had gone to the living room and pulled back the blackout curtain as far as he dared. Through the triangle of glass, headlights parted the night. Four soldiers, stocky, well fed, emerged from the truck. One drank from a vodka bottle and cursed the snow each time he stumbled. This soldier's grandfather had told him, the morning the soldier reported to the Vladivostok conscription center, that he would have perished in Stalingrad if not for the numbing grace of vodka; the soldier, whose cheeks were divoted from years of applying toothpaste to his adolescent acne, believed Chechnya to be a worse war than Stalingrad, and rationed his vodka accordingly. From his living room Akhmed wanted to shout, beat a drum, set off a flare. But across the street, they had already reached Dokka's door and he didn't even look to the phone that was without a pulse for ten years now. They knocked on the door once, twice, then kicked it down. Through the doorway, Akhmed watched torchlight move across the walls. So passed the longest two minutes of Akhmed's life until the soldiers reappeared in the doorway with Dokka. The duct tape strip across his mouth wrinkled with his muted screams. They pulled a black hood over his head. Where was Havaa? Sweat formed on Akhmed's forehead. His hands felt impossibly heavy. When the soldiers grabbed Dokka by the shoulders and belt, tumbling him into the back of the truck and slamming the door, the relief falling over Akhmed was quickly peeled back by self-loathing, because he was alive, safe in his living room, while in the truck across the street, not twenty meters away, Dokka was a dead man. The designation 02 was stenciled above the truck bumper in white paint, meaning it belonged to the Interior Ministry, meaning there would be no record of the arrest, meaning Dokka had never officially been taken, meaning he would never come back. "Where's the girl?" the soldiers asked one another. "She's not here." "What if she's hiding beneath the floorboards?" "She's not." "Take care of it just in case." The drunken soldier uncapped a petrol jug and stumbled into Dokka's house; when he returned to the threshold, he tossed a match behind him and closed the door. Flames clawed their way up the front curtains. The glass panes puddled on the sill. Where was Havaa? When the truck finally left, the fire had spread to the walls and roof. Akhmed waited until the taillights had shrunk to the size of cherries before crossing the street. Running a wide circle around the flames, he entered the forest behind the house. His boots broke the frigid undergrowth and he could have counted the rings of tree stumps by the firelight. Behind the house, hiding among the trees, the girl's face flickered. Streaks of pale skin began under her eyes, striping the ash on her cheeks. "Havaa," he called out. She sat on a suitcase and didn't respond to her name. He held her like a bundle of loose sticks in his arms, carried her to his house and with a damp towel wiped the ash from her forehead. He tucked her in bed beside his invalid wife and didn't know what to do next. He could have gone back outside and thrown snowballs at the burning house, or lain in bed so the girl would feel the warmth of two grown bodies, or performed his ablutions and prostrated himself, but he had completed the isha'a hours earlier and if five daily prayers hadn't spared Dokka's house, a sixth wouldn't put out the flames. Instead he went to the living room window, drew open the blackout curtains, and watched the house he had helped build disappear into light. And now, in the morning, as he tightened the orange scarf around her neck, he found a fingerprint on the girl's cheek, and, because it could have been Dokka's, he left it.

"Where are we going?" she asked. She stood in the frozen furrow of the previous night's tire tracks. The snow stretched on either side. Akhmed hadn't prepared for this. He couldn't imagine why the Feds would want Dokka, much less the girl. She stood no taller than his stomach and weighed no more than a basket of firewood, but to Akhmed she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail.

"We're going to the city hospital," he said, with what he hoped was an assertive tone.

"Why?"

"Because the hospital is safe. It's where people go when they need help. And I know someone there, another doctor," he said, though all he knew of her was her name. "She'll help."

"How?"

"I'm going to ask if you can stay with her." What was he saying? Like most of his plans, this one seemed so robust in his mind but fell like a flightless bird when released to the air. The girl frowned.

"He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. She focused on the blue leather suitcase that sat on the street between them. Eight months earlier, her father had asked her to prepare the suitcase and leave it in the closet, where it had remained until the previous night, when he thrust it into her hands and pushed her out the back door as the Feds broke through the front.

"I don't think so."

"But you don't know?" It wasn't an accusation, but he took it as one. Was he so incompetent a physician that she hesitated to trust him with her father's life even in speculation? "We should be safe," he said. "It's safer to think he won't come back."

"But what if he does?"

The longing knotted into such a simple question was more than he could contemplate. What if she cried? It suddenly seemed like a terrifying possibility. How would he stop her? He had to keep her calm, keep himself calm; panic, he knew, could spread between two people more quickly than any virus. He fiddled with her scarf. Somehow it had survived the fire as orange as the day it was pulled from the dye. "How about this: if he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"

"My father is a good idea."

"Yes, he is," Akhmed said, relieved they had this to agree on.

They plodded along the Eldar Forest Service Road, the village's main thoroughfare, and their footprints began where the tire tracks ended. On either side he saw houses by surname rather than address. A face appeared and vanished in an unboarded window.

"Pull your headscarf tighter," he instructed. But for his years at medical school, he had spent his whole life in Eldar and no longer trusted the traditional clan system of teips that had survived a century of Tsarist rule, then a century of Soviet rule, only to dissolve in a war of national independence. Reincarnated in 1999, after a truce too lawless to be called peace, the war had frayed the village teip into lesser units of loyalty until all but the fidelity of a parent for a child wore thin enough to break. Logging, the village's sole stable industry, had ceased soon after the first bombs fell, and without viable prospects those who couldn't emigrate ran guns for the rebels or informed for the Feds to survive.

He wrapped his arm around Havaa's shoulder as they walked. The girl had always been strong and stoic, but this resignation, this passivity, was something else. She clomped along, kicking snow with each footstep, and in an attempt to cheer her Akhmed whispered a joke about a blind imam and a deaf prostitute, a joke that really wasn't appropriate for an eight-year-old, but was the only one Akhmed could remember. She didn't smile, but was listening. She zipped her puffy jacket over a sweatshirt that in Manchester, England, had warmed the shoulders of five brothers before the sixth, a staunchly philanthropic six-year-old, had given it to his school's Red Cross clothing drive so his mother would have to buy him a new one.

At the end of the village, where the forest narrowed on the road, they passed a meter-tall portrait nailed to a tree trunk. Two years earlier, after forty-one of the villagers had disappeared in a single day, Akhmed had drawn their forty-one portraits on forty-one plywood boards, weatherproofed them, and hung them throughout the village. This one was of a beautiful, self-admiring woman whose second daughter he had delivered. Despite his hounding her for years, she never had paid him for the delivery. After she was abducted, he had decided to draw on her portrait a single hair curling from her left nostril. He had grinned at the vain woman's ghost and then made peace with it. She looked like a beheaded giantess staring from the trunk. Soon she was no more than two eyes, a nose, and a mouth fading between the trees.

The forest rose around them, tall skeletal birches, gray coils of bark unraveling from the trunks. They walked on the side of the road, where frozen undergrowth expanded across the gravel. Here, beyond the trails of tank treads, the chances of stepping on a land mine diminished. Still he watched for rises in the frost. He walked a few meters ahead of the girl, just in case. He remembered another joke, this one about a lovesick commissar, but decided not to tell it. When she began straggling, he led her five minutes into the woods to a felled log unseen from the road. As they sat down, she asked for her blue suitcase. He gave it to her and she opened it, taking a silent inventory of its contents.

"What's in there?" he asked.

"My souvenirs," she said, but he didn't know what she meant. He unwrapped a hunk of dry black bread from a white handkerchief, split it in two uneven pieces, and gave her the larger one. She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn't fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.

"You shouldn't rush," he said. "There are no taste buds in your stomach."

She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. "There's no hunger in your tongue," she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.

"I used to hate black bread," he said. When he was a child he would only eat black bread if it was slathered in a spoonful of honey. Over the course of a year, his mother weaned him from it by slicing larger pieces, until his breakfast consisted of a small, sad oasis of honey on a desert of black bread.

"Can I have yours, then?"

"I said used to," he said, and imagined a brimming jar of honey, standing on a counter without a breadboard in sight.

She dropped to her knees and examined the underside of the log. "Will Ula be all right alone?" she asked.

His wife wasn't all right alone, with him, with anyone. He believed she had, in technical terms, lupus coupled with early-onset dementia, but in practice her nerves were so crisscrossed that her elbows ached when she spoke and her left foot had more sense than her brain. Before leaving that morning he had told Ula he would be gone for the day. As she gazed at him through her blank daze, he felt himself as one of her many visions, and he held her hand, and described from memory the placid pasture of a Zakharov oil painting, the herb garden and the cottage, until she fell back asleep. When she woke again that morning would she still see him sitting on the bed beside her? Perhaps part of him was still there, sitting on the bed; perhaps he was something she had dreamed up.

What Our Readers Are Saying

Add a comment for a chance to win!
Average customer rating based on 4 comments:

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
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.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(3 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)
Lizzybethwoman, February 21, 2014 (view all comments by Lizzybethwoman)
It's been a long time since I've found a book with such exquisite prose blending seamlessly with stunningly visual stories of people and place. 5-stars wasn't enough; I simply loved this book. The harshness of the underlying landscape of winter as the backdrop for brutal horrors of war was softened by the overtones of each of the eight main characters different kinds of love. It wasn't obvious, the core of love throughout -- but that's what I came away with: a wide range of defined LOVE, without a single 'love story' --- in sight.
I loaned the book to a fellow book club member and at the last moment called out "... Only for the month!" because I ached letting it go. This story claimed my interest and then my heart from the opening scene to the very last exulting picture we're left holding. Loved it.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
View all 4 comments

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

Other books you might like

  1. Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1)
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. The Maid's Version Used Hardcover $13.95
  3. A Tale for the Time Being
    Sale Trade Paper $9.98
  4. The Round House (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  5. Dirty Love
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  6. The Lowland
    Used Hardcover $11.50

Related Subjects

» Featured Titles » Arts
» Featured Titles » General
» Featured Titles » Literature
» Featured Titles » Staff Favorites
» Featured Titles » Staff Picks
» Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
» Fiction and Poetry » Popular Fiction » Military
» Special

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.”
spacer
spacer
  • back to top
Follow us on...




Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.