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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by [Marra, Anthony]
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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Q&A with Anthony Marra

Q. Where did you study in Russia? How did that pique your interest?

A. As a junior in college I studied in St. Petersburg. War journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya had recently been assassinated; wounded veterans of the Chechen Wars trawled the metro cars for alms; street gangs routinely attacked people from the Northern Caucasus. Yet as an American I knew little about Chechnya. As soon as I began researching its incredible history, I never looked back.

Q. The setting of your book takes place during the Chechen Wars. Why did you choose this period of history as the backdrop of your novel?

A. Chechnya is a corner of the world largely mysterious to most Americans, yet it’s a remarkable place populated with remarkable people who have become accustomed to repeatedly rebuilding their lives. To quote Tobias Wolff, “We are made to persist…that’s how we find out who we are.” These characters commit acts of courage, betrayal, and forgiveness as they persist in saving what means most to them—be it their families, their honor, or themselves—from the destruction of war.

Q. The title of the book has a story. Can you please explain its meaning?

A. One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: “A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.

Q. Your writing style is unique in that you move back and forth between the present and the past. Was that a conscious choice?

A. Very much so. I wanted to write a novel expansive enough to cover the decade of the two Chechen Wars without losing the drama and suspense inherent in a more tightly coiled plot. By weaving the five-day story of a hunted girl through a larger backdrop, I hoped to combine the tension of a character-driven thriller with the richness of a historical epic. Also, moving through time shines a light on the seemingly trivial moments, relationships, and allegiances that affect characters in profound ways years down the line.

Q. What has had the greatest influence on your writing?

A. My mom has six siblings and my dad has four sisters and between them all there are more cousins than I count, which means that family events have always been filled with voices, stories, and laughter. From an early age I learned from them that stories are how we understand one another, how we preserve the past, and how we make meaning from the chaos of our lives.

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2013: In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra takes us to snow-covered Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. The novel, a remarkable decade-spanning debut, opens with eight-year-old Havaa looking on as her father is dragged off by Russian soldiers for a crime he did not commit. The soldiers set fire to Havaa's home, and next-door neighbor Akhmed attempts to hide her at nearby hospital. Sonya, the doctor who runs the facility, is hesitant to harbor Havaa, as the child invites unnecessary risk to her barely functioning hospital, but both she and Akhmed realize that Havaa represents something greater than a single life: she is the key to maintaining humanity in an ethnic conflict that is absurd and unjust. "There are things a person shouldn't understand," Akhmed says. "There are things a person has a moral duty never to understand." But by the end of Vital Phenomena, we do understand--with deeply emotional characters and gripping depiction of wartorn Chechnya, Marra makes us understand. --Kevin Nguyen

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this extraordinary first novel, Marra homes in on a people and a region that barely register with most Americans and, in heartrending prose, makes us feel their every misfortune. In rural Chechnya, during the second war, a small group of people struggle to survive in the bleakest of circumstances. A gifted surgeon works tirelessly in a crumbling hospital, hardening her heart so that she can perform her gruesome work. An eight-year-old girl who has already seen too much is being hunted by the government ever since the night her father was abducted by Russian soldiers. An incompetent doctor who longed to be an artist paints portraits of 41 neighbors who were killed by government forces and hangs them in the doorways and trees of his ruined village. And a lonely man, once brutally tortured, turns government informant to obtain the insulin needed by his diabetic father, who, in turn, refuses to speak to him. 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. --Joanne Wilkinson

Product details

  • File Size: 1913 KB
  • Print Length: 419 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (May 7, 2013)
  • Publication Date: May 7, 2013
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Screen Reader: Supported
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,511 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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