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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 4, 2014
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New York Times Bestseller
National Book Award Longlist Selection
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An ALA Notable Book of the Year
A #1 Indie Pick
An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
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NBCC John Leonard Prize Winner
Named one of the Best Books of the Year by:
New York Magazine * Chicago Tribune * Kansas City Star * GQ * NPR * Christian Science Monitor * San Francisco Chronicle * Cleveland Plain Dealer
—New York Times
“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.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Extraordinary....a 21st century War and Peace....Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy.”
—Madison Smartt Bell, New York Times Book Review
“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.”
—Dwight Garner, New York Times
“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.”
—Ramona Ausubel, San Francisco Chronicle
“The most moving book I’ve read in years. By writing so beautifully about a tiny village in Chechnya, this 28-year-old Washington native has produced a timeless tragedy about the victims of war.”
—Ron Charles, Washingtonian
“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.”
—John Freeman, Boston Globe
“[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.”
—John Barron, Chicago Tribune
“Amazing...brilliant...one of the most accomplished and affecting books I've read in a very long time....Though the lives lived in this novel can seem unbearable, what Anthony Marra has done is to diligently describe them in passionate, extraordinary prose.”
—Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings, for NPR
“With remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, Marra keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters....Marra creates a specific and riveting world around his characters, expertly revealing the unexpected connections among them....this novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted. Constellation deserves to be on the short list for every major award. It’s an absolute masterpiece.”
—Sarah Jessica Parker for Entertainment Weekly
“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.”
—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“My favorite book of the year....Many people can write beautifully, but few manage to create a whole that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. Marra does this in spades. It is a brilliant book.”
—Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
“Remarkable and breathtaking...a spellbinding elegy for an overlooked land engulfed by an oft forgotten war....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
“Marra elegantly slides across time and perspective, mastering an omniscient voice that reveals each character’s future, present, and past....Marra’s characters are constantly aware of the transience of things, the frailty of their lives. This leads both to a resolve and poignancy that pervades the novel, as each character reckons with the inevitable.”
“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.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Stunning, dazzlingly good....Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us. He slowly unfolds his story with a balanced sureness and subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming....beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital ‘human matter’ of life. It may be the best new novel you'll read this year.”
—Shelf Awareness (starred)
“[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.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“[Marra's] ambitions are Tolstoyan, and he brings stylistic virtuosity to the prose, giving us lyric passages saturated with intelligence and psychological insight. By the end of the novel, we love the characters and grieve with them, and rejoice with the ‘immense, spinning joy’ that is the novel’s final note.”
—2012 Whiting Writers’ Awards, Selection Committee
“A complex debut...[Marra writes] with elegant details about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“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
“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
About the Author
- Publisher : Hogarth; Reprint edition (February 4, 2014)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0770436420
- ISBN-13 : 978-0770436421
- Item Weight : 13.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.4 x 1.1 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #111,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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"In 1956, three years after Stalin's death, the Chechen ethnicity was rehabilitated by the pen stroke of a distant bureaucrat. On the evening of the day the first trains arrived to transport them home, Khassan followed the pale stone road to the pale stone cemetery, carrying with him a spade and the brown suitcase his parents had last packed twelve years earlier. The earth was hard and dry, and it took several hours to reach them. His mother's index finger pointed at him through the dirt. The burial shroud had replaced their skin. They were lighter than he had expected, their muscles hard in desiccation. He folded their arms, pulled on their legs until the tendons snapped; he was as reverent as possible. He packed them tenderly within the discolored suitcase lining. Their bones lay bowed and prostrate. He performed no ablutions, and the brown of earth and decay had rusted his hands, but God wold forgive him these lesser blasphemies. They had given him as good a life as they could. He wished he could have given them a better death. He decided then, that he would write a history of his parents, of his people, of this sliver of humanity the world seemed determined to forget. Standing in the mounded dirt the spade was a slender tombstone. He wasn't alone. Hundreds of others had come to raise and return their dead, and the dust reddened the night."
But like all good fiction, Anthony Marra's extraordinary novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena touched both my mind and my heart.
Spanning ten years and both Chechen wars, Marra tells the story of three neighboring families in the small village of Eldar as well as two sisters in Volchansk. The novel opens with neighbor Dokka taken away in the night to the Landfill by Russian Feds, his house burned, and neighbor Akhmed hurrying Dokka's eight-year-0ld daughter Havaa to safety at the city hospital in Volchansk.
There they meet the head surgeon Sonja (who also happens to be the only surgeon), and she is none to pleased to find them in her waiting room. Akhmed makes the case that since he did attend medical school years ago, he might be of some use--even though he graduated in the bottom three percent of his class. Anything to find sanctuary for Havaa. Sonja, an ethnic Russian, runs on amphetamines, cigarettes, and contempt. But she's desperate for help. She's also desperate to find her sister Natasha, gone for nearly two years to where Sonja doesn't know.
Havaa spends her days trailing Sonja or simply sitting in the waiting room clutching her blue suitcase of souvenirs, flotsam and jetsam that refugees had given her father as payment for a night (or two) in their house on the way to refugee camps. Havaa doesn't open her suitcase until the end of the novel, and when she does, she reveals a poignant link to Natasha.
Tucked next to Akhmed's house is the old professor Khassan, who has spent most of his life writing a history of the Chencen people, and his informant son Ramzan, who has made eleven villagers disappear, but whose trade as a fink keeps the electricity on, food in the refrigerator, and Khassan's insulin needs supplied. Father and son haven't spoken in months, but Ramzan's last betrayal is what set the story in motion.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a sweeping novel that uncovers the characters' pasts and propels them into the future. Each chapter is set in one of the ten years the book covers and the alternating stories require the reader's attention. It's also a difficult book to read. There's nothing easy about torture. Sex slavery. Dismemberment. Murder. But it's a story about love as much as it is about hate. About what connects us as much as what divides us. Most of us experience (at some point or another) estrangement from those we love dearly, and Marro's wide view gives us hope.
Marra's writing is lush and evocative, his storytelling tender, the ending oh-so-satisfying. I'm only sorry A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sat neglected on my TBR pile for so long.
Who should read this book:
- Someone looking for a well-written novel, not a quick beach read
- Someone who is not taken aback but graphic, violent descriptions
- Someone looking for an incredible novel and the opportunity to learn about lifestyles in other parts of the world
Top reviews from other countries
Akmed takes the girl to a nearby hospital, entrusting her to the care of a female surgeon named Sonja. Akmed strikes a deal with Sonja that in return for the girls safety, he will work at the hospital, where he is soon assisting with amputations, among other things. As the story of these three characters unfolds, we learn of the interconnecting threads that link them together.
For a first novel (at least first published novel), this is an extraordinary piece of work that grips the imagination and will leave the reader pondering as to the nature of war, life and death for many days.
Whilst Marra focuses almost entirely on the lives of Akhmed, a failed doctor who prefers to paint portraits of missing members of his village and Sonja, a very competent doctor who had the chance to lead a different life in London but has come back to single-handedly run a hospital, and on the terrible things that happen to them, their relatives and their friends, a feeling of the wider context pervades.
Material shortages are told in a matter of fact tone; disappearances are barely less shocking. However, some things remain of fundamental importance. The life and happiness of a little girl, the dignity of a sister.
I found this novel at some times almost unbearably sad, and yet it is told with a detachment that feels realistic. I really got the feeling that in those times, life was so hard and survival so costly that standards shifted deeply; it is engaging and inspiring to see how adversity can be dealt with whilst human dignity is still retained. At times, that dignity is almost most entirely, but there is always a redeeming gesture that brings the situation back from the brink.
The descriptions are beautiful and detailed; I could see the landscape destroyed by mines, feel the penetrating cold of the snow, imagine the destroyed city, recreated on the wall of the hospital. Akhmed and Sonja especially are wonderfully captured, with each of them having something that draws the reader in.