BookBrowse Reviews A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Discuss |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra X
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2013, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2014, 416 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

Buy This Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Set in Chechnya, this beautiful debut novel shines light on lives that have been ripped asunder by conflict and shows how people can survive even in the bleakest of circumstances

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.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

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.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...
  • Book Jacket: Leonardo da Vinci
    Leonardo da Vinci
    by Walter Isaacson
    The name Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most recognized in all of Western history, and his ...
  • Book Jacket: The Immortalists
    The Immortalists
    by Chloe Benjamin
    On a summer day in 1969 in New York City, the Gold children agree to seek out a mysterious ...
  • Book Jacket: The Kites
    The Kites
    by Romain Gary, Miranda Richmond Mouillot
    Published by New Directions for the first time in English, Romain Gary's The Kites tells a story of ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Dry by Jane Harper

Winner of the 2017 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Days When Birds Come Back
    by Deborah Reed

    A graceful testament to endurance, rebuilding, and the possibilities of coming home.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Mothers of Sparta

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir

A dazzling literary memoir with shades of Mary Karr, Anne Lamott and Jenny Lawson.

Enter

Word Play

Sorry, we do not currently have an active wordplay!

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.