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220 of 234 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Vitally Phenomenal Debut
Every now and then, a book comes along that restores my faith in the future of the novel all over again. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is such a book.

How can a debut novelist write like this lyrically and searingly? Anthony Marra has "the gift" and his work is more assured than writers who have toiled for years.

I'd like to say I was...
Published 21 months ago by Jill I. Shtulman

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131 of 142 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written and evocative. I just didn't quite "get it" as much as others...
If you read as much as I do (or even if you don't), you're bound to come across a book that is hailed by literary critics and readers as one of the greatest things ever, but no matter how much you try and read it and are determined to love it, it just doesn't click for you. I know that happens most often with the classics, but it certainly happens with "regular" fiction...
Published 17 months ago by Larry Hoffer


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220 of 234 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Vitally Phenomenal Debut, January 27, 2013
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Every now and then, a book comes along that restores my faith in the future of the novel all over again. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is such a book.

How can a debut novelist write like this lyrically and searingly? Anthony Marra has "the gift" and his work is more assured than writers who have toiled for years.

I'd like to say I was immediately captured by his novel, but alas, that wouldn't be true. My lack of familiarity with war-torn Chechnya - indeed, with Russian history - distanced me at first. A number of original and whimsical characters were woven into his rich tapestry of words, and for many pages, I wondered just why such-and-such character was being portrayed in great detail.

But then it all started coming together, and - wow oh wow. The title comes from a description of life in a medical book: Life is a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. A careful reading reveals that for this community of characters, the description is quite apt.

The novel primarily takes place throughout a decade - from 1996 to 2004 - and a line graph at the top of each chapter centers the reader in the timeline. There are three key characters - Akhmed, an incompetent doctor with a good heart...Sonja, a bone-weary surgeon who labors each day at a bombed-out hospital that serves as the only respite for those who have been injured...and Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who has already been forced to endure and lose too much.

Many other secondary characters populate this epic tale, including a beautifully-detailed portrait of a damaged man who has turned informer: Ramzan. All of these characters will become tied in an intricate web of connections that reveal how human fate is not just in our own hands, but in the hands of all humanity.

The result is a haunting and original look into many universal themes. Ramzan says, "We're beyond obligation. We wear clothes and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are." Or is it? Rather than embrace Ramzan's view of the world, this book shines a spotlight on the true meanings of love and sacrifice, and the lengths we will go to connect and endure.

While heartbreaking at times, the book, at its core, is hopeful and proves that an "immense, spinning joy" can occur even when one's very humanity is threatened. I view this Constellation as a potential classic. It is that stellar.
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131 of 142 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written and evocative. I just didn't quite "get it" as much as others..., May 21, 2013
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If you read as much as I do (or even if you don't), you're bound to come across a book that is hailed by literary critics and readers as one of the greatest things ever, but no matter how much you try and read it and are determined to love it, it just doesn't click for you. I know that happens most often with the classics, but it certainly happens with "regular" fiction and nonfiction as well.

Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is such a book for me. Reviews have hailed it as everything from "brilliant" and "haunting" to "a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles."

One day, in a snowy village in war-torn Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides as Russian soldiers abduct her father, Dokka, in the middle of the night. Their kindly neighbor, Akhmed, fears the worst when he sees the soldiers setting fire to Dokka's house as they take him away, but he rescues Havaa from her hiding place. Fearing she will be discovered, Akhmed takes Havaa to the local hospital, abandoned but for one doctor, Sonja, who alone (with the help of one cantankerous nurse) has been treating all of the victims of war and illness that enter the dilapidated hospital's doors. Akhmed, who was a medical student at the very bottom of his class, promises to work as a doctor with Sonja to ensure Havaa is provided for.

Sonja comes with her own set of issues, most notably her sister, Natasha, who has continuously disappeared and reappeared in Sonja's life, but has been missing for some time. And Akhmed is caring for his own bedridden wife, and worrying about his neighbor and childhood friend, who is an informant for the Russians. But Sonja and Akhmed forge a reluctant partnership, one which opens both of their eyes to the surprising connections that tie them together.

For me, while there's no doubt that Marra is a tremendously talented writer who has created some memorable characters and some beautiful sentences, this book just didn't click the way I hoped it would. It's a very dense story--in order to give gravity to his narrative, Marra packs a great deal of Chechen history and details that seemed to run on for far too long. The book takes place over a 10-year-period, and switches perspectives frequently and abruptly. And although he weaves all of his storylines together at the end, before that point I wondered why he spent so much time dwelling on certain details about secondary characters.

I'm not usually an outlier in this fashion; I usually like books more than others. So if the story and people's reviews make this book sound like one you think you'd love, have at it. And then perhaps we can discuss what I'm missing.
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81 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena", January 30, 2013
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What is life? What is the quality that distinguishes a vital, functioning human being from a dead body? Every study of human anatomy and physiology begins with these questions. There is no short scientific answer or specific formula for life because no single criterion adequately describes life. Rather life is best defined by its most essential characteristics - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation...a constellation of vital phenomena. And this constellation of vital phenomena is the essential criteria with which Anthony Marra gives life to his first novel.

This is a peerless literary accomplishment of the first order, a work of brilliance, a book of exceptional beauty and this reviewer is hard pressed to articulate what an extraordinary reading experience it has provided her. Almost Tolstoyan in register and range I can hardly believe that A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is Anthony Marra's debut novel!

Young writers who do well on their first literary effort are often compared to the traditions of more established novelists but Marra needs no such comparison. With CONSTELLATION he has already established his own tradition.

With an artistic attention to language, structure and detail, he has created an epic saga that charts the rugged political landscape of the often forgotten country of Chechnya while also tracing the fragile contours of the human heart. This is a tale of historic fact and creative imagination that teases, provokes, challenges and illuminates an emotional map of sadness and hope, cruelty and love...emotional conflict set against a backdrop of real political and social conflict.

At the center of this intricately plotted but beautifully told narrative is the primary star in the constellation of characters - eight year old and recently orphaned Havaa. Two unlikely companions are then pulled into her orbit - a brilliant woman surgeon, Sonja, who runs an abandoned hospital and Akhmed, a lifelong family friend and neighbor. As Havaa, Sonja and Akhmed search for family, identity and love during some of the worst of the Chechen conflict, they close the distance between each other and move towards a love that will bind and strengthen them. What is thus created and will never be forgotten by this reader is a vivid panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman place.

Vast in vision and breadth yet intimate in depicting the human heart in all of its longing and imperfection, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA took me utterly captive and burned itself into my heart. I connected with this soaring, wrenching, compelling novel viscerally. This book is so seductive, so powerful and so engaging that any reader who reaches its last page untouched by the profound moments of pathos and humanity or unmoved by the undercurrents of human connection, is either heartless or completely void of their personal constellation of vital phenomena.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Huh, July 7, 2013
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This book did not work for me. It's being hailed as a great literary debut, and I don't take issue with the writing style, but the characters and their stories failed to engage me.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (that's a mouthful!) is set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004. The main storyline concerns a child (Havaa) being hunted by security forces after her father is disappeared; her neighbor (Akhmed) attempts to rescue her by handing her over to a doctor (Sonja) in a nearby city. This frame story takes place over only five days, but the book also makes extensive use of flashbacks to show how all the characters got to their current situations, as well as jumping ahead (sometimes by decades) to relay what will happen to characters in the future. And there are several secondary characters with whom the book spends quite a bit of time, as well as a plethora of minor ones whose life stories are told in brief asides.

I'm not going to say this is a bad book. Reading about Chechnya and life during wartime was interesting, there's some solid imagery, and the writing is good. Despite the title, it's not overwritten or pretentious, though it is a book that leans more heavily on writing style than plot, and if you're not a fan of long, comma-laden sentences it may not be for you. The beginning and ending are both strong, but for the most part it failed to keep my interest. The characters never came to life for me, whether because too much is simply told or alluded to in flashback rather than shown, or because of the rather flowery and contrived dialogue, or because it jumps around too much in time and among the characters (usually a style I enjoy).

In the end, all the main characters seemed less than the sum of their parts. Akhmed is a nice guy who'd rather be an artist than a doctor, and that's about all there is to him. Havaa is supposed to be 8 years old, but reads more like a mature 13. Sonja.... I don't even know. She's the type of character I'm inclined to love--the brusque, uber-competent female professional--but Marra never got me invested in this particular character. I was actually more interested in her sister Natasha, but the book skims the surface of Natasha's story even faster than it does everyone else's. And basic questions about the plot and the characters' relationships are never satisfactorily answered: for instance, does Sonja know what happened to Natasha the first time she disappeared? Why do Sonja and Akhmed hook up, aside from the fact that the male protagonist and the female protagonist in fiction always do? Why can't the Feds find Havaa simply by following Akhmed or asking around in the city (she seems to do a lot of hanging around public areas of the hospital and socializing with the staff)?

Finally, I would have liked to see more of Chechen culture. There's some great visual detail, but aside from one brief scene dealing with a ritual in the mountains, culturally the book could be set in any war-torn place. Toward the end, a female character isn't searched at a checkpoint because the soldiers take her for "a traditional Chechen woman," which threw me for a loop because in the preceding 340 pages there's no evidence of restraint in the interactions between the sexes, even among the villagers. We know it's a Muslim country because every now and then someone prays. I love to travel the world through fiction, but I want some reassurance that my guide actually knows the place (Marra studied in Russia, but it's unclear to me whether he's ever set foot in Chechnya).

In the end, I may have been a little harsh with this one; it didn't do anything for me, but so many people have loved it that there's a good chance it will work for you. You could do worse than picking up this nicely-written book, which if nothing else will raise your awareness about a little-known part of the world.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brutal, harrowing and unforgettable, May 1, 2013
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Daffy Du (Del Mar, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Anthony Marra is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and as others have noted, it's hard to believe this is his first novel. It's so accomplished and confident that it could easily be the work of a far more seasoned writer. His use of language is beautiful.

That said, this is a harrowing book, one that brings vividly to life the sheer brutality of civil war, in this case between the Russians and the Chechens. (How ironic that I began reading it immediately after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested for the Boston Marathon bombings!)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena ostensibly traces the events of five days, after Dokka, a fingerless arborist, is seized from his house by Russian soldiers, who also burn down the house and have orders to take his 8-year-old daughter, Havaa, as well. But Havaa escapes, and their friend and neighbor, Akhmed, takes her to the local hospital, or what is left of it, where he hopes a physician he's never met, Sonja, will take her in and protect her. Akhmed is a physician himself, but since he skipped medical classes to sit in on art classes, he is, by his own admission, incompetent. Sonja, however, a no-nonsense ethnic Russian and brilliant surgeon who harbors grief of her own, is less than welcoming. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, Marra tells the backstories of the various characters, as well as what ultimately happens to them, and while I can't say it's uplifting, if you can get through highly disturbing descriptions of the tortures inflicted on those who are pegged as enemies of Russia, it does offer some relief. For my part, I considered abandoning it partway through because of the violence and brutality, but the writing and the characters kept me reading. It also provides a window on what has been going on in Chechnya and why the Chechen feelings against the Russians run so deep.

At its core, the book is about love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, and the nuanced and intricate relationships between the inhabitants of the village where Havaa and Akhmed live, all set against the horrors of war. If you appreciate serious fiction and have a fairly strong stomach, this is an impressive and ultimately satisfying book.

Four and a half stars.
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40 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding writing, sad story, February 19, 2013
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C. G. King (Horse Country, VA USA) - See all my reviews
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This heartbreaking story of a war torn area of the world reminds us that however annoyed we get with our own lives, we're far better off. I'd never have read about this tragic place and time if the writing had been less brilliant. It held me while I learned some hard lessons.

Several years ago I reviewed novel excerpts in the Amazon Shorts Writing Contest and one author's writing impressed me so much I saved part of his entry and his name. With talent like that, I was sure he was headed for great things. I ran across the entry recently and searched to see if he'd been published yet. What did I find but this book due to be released soon. I was delighted to find it on Vine and couldn't wait to read it.

Sure enough the writing is stunning and it kept me reading even though the story of the desperation of those living through these wars wrenches one's soul. The characters accept the horror of their lives and put one foot in front of the other with utter futility and yet rays of hope leak through the crumbling walls. While there is not much bright about what happens, the message that comes out at the end is that life goes on and prevails. It's a story of hope and survival against all odds. The characters leave a legacy that reinforces one's belief in the strength of the human spirit.

I expected great things from this author and I wasn't disappointed. He has a real gift.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Four Helpful Ideas, February 16, 2013
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"The Constellation of Vital Phenomena," by Anthony Marra, is one of the best five-star novels I've read in many years and certainly the best debut novel I've ever read. The novel is a stunning psychological exploration into the raw reality of human existence, a vivid literary portrait of the human condition.

What I'd like to do in this review space is to focus on four additional ideas about this novel that may help future readers not only with their choice, but also with their interpretation.

First, I recommend reading a brief summary of the history of modern Chechnya (especially the First and Second Chechen Wars) before beginning this work. Reading a few paragraphs in Wikipedia would be adequate.

Second, I want to discuss the novel's narrative mode and how it contributes to the theme. The novel is narrated from an unorthodox and over-the-top omniscient narrator. This is a narrator who frequently breaks the flow of the story to share brief, often wholly irrelevant, past and future details about people and objects. This narrator knows not only everything about the present and the past, but also what will become of everything--people and objects--many decades into the future. These abrupt mid-paragraph jumps into the future happen so frequently, one has to ask why. What is the author trying to achieve with this arresting narrative style?

I believe the author is trying to make a statement about life and free will. He is saying that we are all biological creatures, composed, indeed, of a constellation of vital phenomena. He is emphasizing that life is a biological process. What human beings do in a theater of war has to do with biological processes that all humans share in common. There are characters in this novel who do heroic things and there are others who act with inhumanity. I believe this unorthodox omniscient narrator is there to help us treat all the people in this story--good and bad--with equal sympathy and nonjudgmental acceptance. This is life, Marra says; we must take the good and the bad because that is part of the constellation of vital phenomena that make up our human condition.

Third, most of the reviewers identify the main characters in this novel as Sonja, Akmed, and Havaa. I have a different take. Sonja and Akmed are clearly the two main characters, but the arc of the story pivots around the rescue of Havaa, the eight-year-old child targeted by the Russian military for "disappearance." Although Havaa is fully fleshed out as a character, significantly less time is spent on her than on the other secondary characters. The plot revolves around Havaa's rescue, but as a character, she is clearly secondary.
Havaa is related to neither Sonja nor Akmed, but Akmed jumps to the child's rescue in the opening scenes of the novel, propelled by some enormous inner emotional debt to Havaa's father. Slowly, in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, we learn the intricate web of human connections that caused Havaa to be targeted for death; we also learn the equally intricate web of human connections that give those individuals trying to protect Havaa the psychological motivation to rise to the task. The novel features a cast of essential, and fully developed, secondary characters: Natasha, (Sonja's beautiful younger sister), Khassam (a scholarly elder neighbor and friend to Akmed), Ramzan (Khassam's son who has turned informer), and Dokka (Havaa's father and Khassam's and Akmed's friend). Knowing the inner emotional landscape of each of these characters is vital to the arc of the story and finding our way through the intricate web of human connections that focus on Havaa's safety.

Fourth, this is a novel that can joyfully be read for a second time immediately after finishing it. I did that with this novel and discovered a great deal of psychological detail that I had missed the first time around. In addition, a second reading allowed me to examine and enjoy the author's enormous literary talents more thoroughly.

Despite its spectacular literary beauty, this novel is certainly not for everyone. Why? First, it is a literary novel that has little chance of being a crossover into the popular book market. Second, it focuses on the stark realities of life during two brutal wars; if you do not want to read about torture, don't read this book. Third, the novel appears to suggest that there is no free will; many readers may take issue with that message. Fourth, figuring out the intricate puzzle of human interactions underlying the arc of the story is what compels the reader rather than any constant tension and concern about the child's immediate safety, i.e., this book is more of an intellectual puzzle than a thriller.

The novel has already won one of ten Whiting Writers Awards for 2012. I would not be surprised to see it garner other, major literary prizes. I wish the author well, and will not be surprised to see him eventually emerge as a major American literary talent.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars PEN Hemingway finalist perhaps?, April 14, 2013
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I want to add one more positive review. I cannot believe that this is a debut novel. Granted the author has some great credentials including an MFA from Iowa, but this debut floored me. It's not exactly a subject that will appeal to everyone, but it is so wonderfully written that one cannot help but be amazed.

This is a story that plows into the nature of the human spirit. The author has crafted wonderfully realistic characters that are a joy to bond with. The events are harrowing and the main characters embody this amazing drive to survive against all odds, whereas others might have given up. The reader will be saddened and uplifted at the same time.

His writing style is amazing for a young author. His prose is spot on. Never does he fall into the pit of overly descriptive narrative or minutiae that many young authors tend to. His story is crisp and compact and it never deviates from the main story line.

Comparing this to 'The Tiger's Wife' is a disservice. This is one of the finest debut novels published since 2000 that I have read.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intense and heartbreaking, April 8, 2013
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This breathtaking novel by Anthony Marra takes place in Chechnya over a period from 1994 to 2004 and goes back and forth between these dates and sometimes even further into the past. The author does a exceptional job of bringing us into the lives of a group of people caught up in the ethnic strife of the first and second Chechnyan wars through no fault of their own. Over the course of a few months in 1994, everything has changed. Bombs are destroying homes and buildings on a daily basis, inquisition teams haul people from their homes to the "Landfill" for questioning and they are usually never seen or heard from again. There is distrust among neighbors who often don't know who the informers are, which is all a part of the new normal. The story takes place in a mostly Muslim area, but there are also ethnic Russians along with the Chechen Muslims, all caught up in this terrible conflict.

This story centers mainly around Sonja, a doctor who has lost track of her sister, Natasha who had disappeared, returned, and then disappeared again, Akhmet a doctor who graduated in the bottom tenth of his class in a third class medical school, and is much more interested in being an artist, and Havaa, the daughter of Dokka who lived across the street from Akhmet. Secondary characters are Ramzan, a damaged man turned informer, and his elderly father, Khassam who has spent much of his life writing a massive history of Chechnya. The story begins with Akhmet taking eight year old Havaa who hid in the woods behind her home when her father was abducted by the "authorities", to a hospital in a neighboring town where he has heard of a capable doctor and surgeon named Sonja who he hopes will take her in and provide protection. As the story unfolds, layer by layer, we learn of the many connections between the characters which are much more complicated than they appear on the surface.

This is what I would call a literary psychological novel. Mara drops us into these towns and into the hearts and minds of his characters. We can feel the devastation and horror, but also the strength of the people as they pick up the pieces and move on with their lives in any way that they can. But most of all we feel the hope when it seems like there should be none.

This is not the type of story I normally enjoy reading with several violent torture scenes and the devastation these people experience, both physically and psychologically. It's almost like reading about the Holocaust. There were parts where I wanted to just close the book. Yet Mara so beautifully describes the strength of the human spirit, the depth of the soul and hope when there seemingly is none, that it became difficult to put this book down. It's just amazing that it is his debut novel. I predict that this book will be a best seller and possibly even a classic.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War Changes All The Rules., April 4, 2013
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The history of ethnic strife in Chechnya is long and confusing. Anthony Marra bypasses the facts and figures and takes us directly into the lives of ordinary people trying to make a meaningful existence amid the rubble and death and ongoing violence. Living in a state of constant trauma changes all the rules. Young and old, ethnic Russians and Chechen Muslims, the characters' lives intersect in such a way that they cannot hate each other with the intensity prescribed by their ancestors.

With a complete absence of emotional manipulation, Marra takes us back and forth in the lives of the characters, moving along a timeline from 1994 to 2004. As they move in and out of periods of war, we see the events that led them to their current behaviors. Their choices begin to make more sense when we see how they have suffered, and the sins they have committed in the name of self-preservation. These are the sins for which they are now seeking absolution, whether from a higher power or from those they have wronged.

I'm a picky reader, and my friends tell me I'm a hard grader when I rate books. I'm always skeptical when I hear raves about an up-and-coming author who's supposed to be the latest writing phenomenon. I always have to give them a chance, though, because once in awhile they turn out to be as talented as promised. Anthony Marra is one of those who deserves all the praise he's receiving. If you like serious literary fiction, this is a novel you won't want to miss.
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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra (Paperback - February 4, 2014)
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