Summary and book reviews of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

By Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
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  • Hardcover: May 2013,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2014,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

Winner of the BookBrowse 2013 Best Debut Novel Award

Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, Anthony Marra has written a brilliant debut novel that brings to life an abandoned hospital where a tough-minded doctor decides to harbor a hunted young girl, with powerful consequences.

In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed - a failed physician - to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.

With The English Patient's dramatic sweep and The Tiger's Wife's expert sense of place, Marra gives us a searing debut about the transcendent power of love in wartime, and how it can cause us to become greater than we ever thought possible.

Chapter 1
2004

On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we should go," he said, but neither moved.

The snow softened around their boots as they stared across the street to the wide patch of flattened ash. A few orange embers hissed in pools of gray snow, but all else was char. Not seven years earlier, Akhmed had helped Dokka build an addition so the girl would have a room of her own. He had drawn the blueprints and chopped the hardwood and cut it into boards and turned ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Garnering rave reviews coast-to-coast, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an unforgettable debut novel that deftly explores the human cost of war—and the healing power of hope. In this haunting masterwork, award-winning author Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya. It is 2004, and an eight-year-old girl has just watched Russian soldiers abduct her father and set fire to her house in the middle of the night. Accused of aiding Chechen rebels, her father has suffered the brutality of the Feds before. Fearing the worst, their lifelong neighbor Akhmed rescues the girl and seeks refuge at the bombed-out hospital run by Sonja, a brilliant but tough-as-nails ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Before reading "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena", how much did you know about Chechnya? Which of the novel's cultural details surprised you the most?
Very little. That said, I did not find my ignorance a hindrance. I think the book does a very good job of giving you the information that you need to appreciate the situation facing the characters. After I finished the book, I came across the ... - joanr

Cover art for paperback version
I often buy books because of the title, and or the artwork on the cover. This was a double bonus, Loved the title and the cover! The woods had the appearance of possibly snow but also gave the effect of an eerie celestial heavens. The combination ... - kate

Cultural heritage is important to each of the characters' identities. Do you identify with a particular culture, and if so, how and to what extent does it influence your life and the lives of your family?
Cultural heritage is important to each and every one of us. In my case: I was born in Latvia, came here as an immigrant, a child, a refugee from WWII. The important thing is the ability to aclimitize into this culture. To absorb all the ... - guntak

Do you think the idea of returning to one's homeland is a universal concern?
Having lived in the US my whole life, I believe if I moved away I would always want to come back. I think most people around the world feel the same way. Identifying with your place of birth is a basic human belief I feel. - maryj

How would you describe Constellation to a friend?
Dark, brutal, strong, powerful; please read. Really. - cb

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2013

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    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2013

Reviews

BookBrowse

Anthony Marra's forte may very well be his ability to create characters his readers really come to care about. Every one of them, from the lowliest guard up, is drawn with amazing depth, with the author sometimes conveying a character's whole history in just a few sentences. He even leads his readers to understand and sympathize with the book's most unsavory character, something that is extraordinarily difficult to do.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
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.

Author Blurb Adam Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of The Orphan Master's Son
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.

Author Blurb T.C. Boyle, New York Times bestselling author of When the Killing's Done and The Women
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.

Author Blurb Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
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.

Author Blurb Vincent Lam, author of The Headmaster's Wager
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.

Kirkus Reviews

The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer. A somber, sensitive portrait of how lives fray and bind again in chaotic circumstances.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Marra's sobering, complex debut intertwines the stories of a handful of characters at the end of the second war in bleak, apocalyptic Chechnya.

Booklist

Starred Review. 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.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Marra's moving novel will appeal to admirers of Tea Obreht's similarly war-torn novel The Tiger's Wife, but his story relies less on magical realism and more on the seemingly random threads binding us together. Highly recommended for all readers of literary fiction.

Reader Reviews
Mal

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
"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. Despite the shock of walking into an empty ...   Read More

Laurie

worthy of being called "literature"
Anthony Marra not only tells a great story, he can really write. Beautifully drawn characters and wonderful prose make this book a work of art. The constant shifting forward and backward in time took some mental adjustment, but was an effective way...   Read More

Denise B-K

Highly recommend "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."
Unaware of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" (CVP) until the much deserved BookBrowse and Goodreads 2013 book awards were announced and certainly glad I check on these. Received this book from BookBrowse in order to participate in the ...   Read More

Asha

Beautiful narration, painful but intelligent.
I received this book as a book club read from Bookbrowse. A painfully human narration of ordinary people living through the ethnic conflict in Chechnya. I found the book to be captivating and painful to read. The purges, the freedom gained, and ...   Read More

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The Second Chechen War and the Lead-Up to It

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set primarily during the Second Chechen War, which started August 1999.

The second war had its roots in the First Chechen War (aka the War in Chechnya). At the heart of this initial conflict – and indeed the one that followed - was the relationship of Chechnya to Russia.

Chechnya and its neighbors Chechnya was one of more than a dozen states to declare independence from Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991. But not all Chechens agreed with the decision with many wanting to remain a part of the Russian Federation. The end result was that Chechen President Dzokhar Dudayev's pro-independence government was unstable and this led to armed resistance by rebels opposed to his domestic policies. ...

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