Winner of the BookBrowse 2013 Best Debut Award
Anthony Marra's debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in 2004 in war-torn Chechnya. As the story opens, village physician Akhmed is trying to get his eight-year-old neighbor Havaa to safety after her father has been "disappeared" by Russian soldiers, who have also burned her home to the ground and are actively looking for her. He decides to take the girl to a nearby hospital, where he hopes the only surgeon in attendance, Sonja Rabina, will be able to hide and protect her. As the novel proceeds we learn these characters' backstories as well as those of others with whom their lives intersect, and how all have been traumatically impacted by living in a war zone. Marra weaves a wonderfully complex tale around these characters that abounds with old secrets and unexpected convergences.
As I started writing this review I got online to see what other books Marra had written, and I was surprised to discover that this is his first. The writing is astonishingly good and that it's from the pen of a new novelist makes it that much more extraordinary. His prose is beautifully descriptive and atmospheric, creating detailed scenes that convincingly relay life in a war zone without bogging down the plot:
The forest rose around them, tall skeletal birches, gray coils of bark unraveling from the trunks. They walked on the side of the road, where frozen undergrowth expanded across the gravel. Here, beyond the trails of tank treads, the chances of stepping on a land mine diminished. Still he watched for rises in the frost. He walked a few meters ahead of the girl, just in case.
The author also has an outstanding talent for writing dialog. Each character's voice is distinctive as he or she interacts with the others in the novel. Sometimes the conversations are playful, sometimes regretful, sometimes confessional but they all ring true. The banter between Akhmed, Sonja and her nurse Deshi in particular provide some of the lighter moments in the book.
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 in detail but with a minimum of words - at times it feels we have learned all there is to know of a character 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.
The novel ends on a note of hope and a promise of better things to come for some of those whose stories we have learned, but for the most part it's a pretty tragic book. Not one of the characters has had a pain-free life; horrible things have happened to each of them, and it's heartbreaking reading. There's so much suffering expressed in these pages that to be frank I found it challenging to finish. I was glad that I did see it through it's one of the most memorable and well-written books I've come across in a long time but it was not an easy read.
In short, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has it all wonderful writing, a moving, believable plot, and three-dimensional characters one comes to love. Marra is a gifted writer, and his debut is enormously impressive.
This review was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the February 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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