Tuesday, January 13, 2015

REVIEW: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


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.

Paperback, 416 pages
Published February 4th 2014 by Hogarth (first published January 1st 2013)
ISBN 0770436420 (ISBN13: 9780770436421)

About the Author

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

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My Thoughts
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.
One night Russian soldiers bust into the house of Dokka in a small village in Chechnya. Dokka orders his young 8-year-old daughter Havaa to escape into the woods with the small blue suitcase that she had packed and ready at a moment's notice. Dokka is hauled away by Russian soldiers and his house burned to the ground.

Havaa is a charming little girl who dreams of being a marine biologist, a dutiful daughter who helps her father in every way she can. And when he tells her to grab her suitcase and whisks her away to the woods behind their home, she does as he says and waits-- waits in the woods with her little blue suitcase until Ahkmed finds her.

Dokka's neighbor Ahkmed searches the woods for Havaa, and shuttles her away to the safety of his own home, where he lives with his ailing and bedridden wife Ula, but determines that Havaa is not safe in the village. The soldiers will return for her. So he takes her to the nearby hospital, to leave her in the care of a doctor he's never met before, but learned of from a passing refugee.

Sonja is the only doctor at the local hospital. She is responsible for the care of everyone that comes through her doors, from injured soldiers and civilians with missing limbs and mortal wounds to women giving birth. Sonja was always the brilliant academic daughter overlooked by everyone, outshined by her beautiful younger sister Natasha. Now after many hard hits and years of war and loss, she is toughened and embittered, and searching for her missing sister.
Her existence was so narrow, her energies so focused, she lived like a nail driving through the surface of daily routines and disappointments.

Sonja is none too happy to be burdened with the care of a young girl, but agrees reluctantly to do so with the offer of Ahkmed's services (he trained as a physician, but his skills are greatly lacking in that area).

Sonja’s sister Natasha was always envied for her beauty. Natasha seemed to have always been the only one who recognized how special her sister was, and Sonja never really seemed to resent the way the very presence of her sister usurped all recognition from Sonja herself.

Everyone knows when someone in the village goes missing, they will wind up at the Landfill where all of the missing turn up, and the blame can be laid at the doorstep of Ramzan, the village informant who was once a good friend of Dokka. Ramzan's kind father Khassan is much shamed by his son's activities, and has been ostracized by the village because of his son.

Havaa was a very likable little girl; very endearing. Ahkmed was a good, selfless man. Although Sonja was tough and detached, she showed through her actions that she was a woman of real character and depth.

I found that it could be difficult keeping track of the characters. Foreign names are often difficult to keep in mind, as they are so unfamiliar. But part of that is my fault. I was so distracted while reading this book that I’d only get a few pages before putting it down. It made it hard to retain some of the characters and get it all straight in my head. But even while being distracted and a little detached from the book, I sensed this book was a bit of genius and beauty, bound and titled. The way that the author would express things really moved me.
At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared.
“I was thinking of someone I lost many years ago,” Khassan said. “She called me a coward once. It wasn’t what she said, but the way she said it. As if her judgment just passed through me. As if I were a cloud.”

This is really a character-driven story. The timeline shifts back and forth from present to past, and from the viewpoint of one character to another. The transition from past to present and vice-versa is assisted by a timeline at the top of each chapter, reflecting the year the current narration is taking place.

The narrator is all-knowing, and will share tidbits of information about the future and past and present that the characters themselves don’t know.

I found myself thinking during the final quarter of the book that this story is like a tapestry. Many of the characters and events were interwoven, and they would only come to light as the tapestry grew and developed. Really beautiful and brilliantly executed.

The book title comes from a thick medical book that a character pulls off the shelf and finds at the bottom of page 1322:
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena-- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

My final word: This is one of those rare and uncommon novels that you come across every now and again. Provocative and riveting, it is a beautifully written story with well-developed characters that you can really care about. A lyrical and intelligent tale of war-torn Chechnya, I found myself moved. I feared for the safety of those in danger, was sickened by the brutality and indifference, and yearned for the security of all. In the end, I found this to be a hard-hitting novel that is soft in all the right places.

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My Rating:


I received a copy of this book to review through Blogging for Books, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel.


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