A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

  • by Anthony Marra
  • Narrated by Colette Whitaker
  • 12 hrs and 8 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.
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.


What the Critics Say

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is simply spectacular. Not since Everything is Illuminated have I read a first novel so ambitious and fully realized. If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go.”
—Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto

“Remarkable and breathtaking, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a spellbinding elegy for an overlooked land engulfed by an oft forgotten war. Set in the all-too-real Chechen conflict, Marra conjures fragile and heartfelt characters whose fates interrogate the very underpinnings of love and sacrifice.”
—Adam Johnson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Orphan Master’s Son

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

“[An] extraordinary first novel...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)

“Marra’s debut novel places readers in Chechnya during its decade-long conflict with Russia and offers up an 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)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in an almost abandoned hospital in Chechnya in 2004, where a child, her caretaker and a doctor unravel the strange ties that bind them. It is a book of violence and beauty, and the undisputed arrival of a major new literary talent.” Globe and Mail

“Affecting and harrowing… A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity.” Kirkus

“Powerful, convincing, beautifully realized--it's hard to believe that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a first novel.  Anthony Marra is a writer to watch and savor.”
—T.C. Boyle, New York Times bestselling author of When the Killing’s Done and The Women

“Anthony Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is both devastating and transcendent.  The story of eight people (and a nation) navigating two brutal wars, it’s a novel of loyalty and sacrifice and enduring love.  You’ll finish it transformed.”
—Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

“Anthony Marra’s fine debut novel reaches tenderly, unflinchingly, into the center of the Chechnyan conflict of the late 1990s. This tale has its roots in shocking brutality, and its beauty in the human redemption that can come from unaccountable human kindness. Whimsies of circumstance, fate, and the ties of family and faith serve to guide the reader and the characters through a richly layered and deeply beautiful journey.”
─Vincent Lam, author of The Headmaster’s Wager

From the Hardcover edition.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A Conflicted Response

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.
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- Cariola "malfi"

A bleak, beautiful debut

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.
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- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-07-2013
  • Publisher: Random House Audio