Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
Hogarth May 2013
379 pages
From the library

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

The war in Chechnya stretches on for the civilians caught up in it. When Havaa's father is snatched in the middle of the night, their neighbor Akhmed is desperate to save Havaa. He knows that the Russians will be back for the little girl. Their village is no longer safe and an informant could be lurking in any house in the neighborhood. Akhmed can only think to take the little girl to a renowned doctor, a woman he has never met. Sonja is not thrilled to have an absurdly cheerful man and a small girl get in the way of her work as the only doctor left in the hospital. But Akhmed, Havaa, and Sonja are connected by more than they know. 

This book is a devastating look at a real war through the eyes of fictional characters. Knowing that this war took place so recently gives this tale an added layer of urgency. It takes place within a ten year period. We start in 2004 with Akhmed's last-chance decision and move back and forth in time to 1994. Sometimes I am frustrated by using this jump through time method but, in this instance, it adds new layers to the story in a really great way.

Marra is playing the long game with this story. He takes the time to relate where a piece of clothing came from or the fate of a minor character. Everything and everyone connects somewhere, in small or large ways. It makes the story all the more beautiful and tragic when you know what happens to each character, even the ones you only meet on a single page. In this place and time, relationships are a dangerous thing to have. Your long-time friend could be an informer. The family you adore could be taken from you in an instant. In the midst of these impossible situations, Marra shows that these bonds are the only way we have to hold on to our humanity.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a breathtaking work of literature. I was stopped in my tracks again and again by Marra's lovely prose and his understanding of the horror and heartbreak of war and the resilience of love.

"She flipped through the book and found answers to questions no sane person would ever ask. The definition of a foot. The average length of a femur. Nothing for insanity by grief, or insanity by loneliness, or insanity by reading reference books. What inoculation could the eight-point font provide for the whisper of Sukhois in the sky? Based on the average life expectancy of a Soviet woman, she could expect to live for another forty-eight years, but the Soviet Union had died, and she hadn't, and the appendices couldn't explain this discrepancy in data, when the subject outlasted its experiment. Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." 

“Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn't create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written.” 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a stunning debut from a gifted author. Marra finds the hope and beauty that exists within the terror and heartbreak of war. His characters are hopeful, determined, and wonderfully flawed. This book will make your heart ache and make you smile, all within the same chapter. This is a story you don't want to miss. 

13 comments:

  1. Oh, I so agree. I have no idea why this book isn't making more blogger rounds. The prose is luminous and the subject is horrifying, and together they are sublime.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed! This book deserves all of the praise it can get.

      Delete
  2. Nice review. I wasn't sure what it was about...thanks for the informative post.

    THANKS for stopping by my blog earlier.

    Elizabeth
    Silver's Reviews
    My It's Monday, What Are You Reading

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hate when you see a book and you just aren't sure what it's about! I'm glad I could clear it up for you. :)

      Delete
  3. I loved this book so much that I want to read it again just reading your review. I've physically put it in the hands of friends to make sure they read it, which happens pretty rarely.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! I was finished with it, but wasn't ready to take it back to the library yet. I think this one will be a book I buy, which doesn't happen too frequently!
      I'm glad you loved this one too.

      Delete
  4. This sounds like a fantastic book, and one that points out a war that is much overlooked on the western hemisphere. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I felt like a terrible person because I knew so little of this conflict. Obviously, this is fiction but I'm glad I know some more after reading this book.

      Delete
  5. Wonderful review, Lindsey! I love the title of this book and after reading your review, I have added it to my 'TBR' list. I loved this sentence you have quoted - "Based on the average life expectancy of a Soviet woman, she could expect to live for another forty-eight years, but the Soviet Union had died, and she hadn't, and the appendices couldn't explain this discrepancy in data, when the subject outlasted its experiment." So beautiful and thought-prooking.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was really beautiful. This is one of those wonderful books where you get both beautiful prose and amazing characters. I hope you get to read it!

      Delete
  6. Stunning indeed, this book blew me away!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe you were the one who convinced me to read it. I don't remember. Thanks if it was you! :)

      Delete
  7. I also really enjoyed the way we jumped back and forth in time. That's a storytelling method I do usually enjoy, but this is probably my favorite example of an author doing that. I loved the way the author would be telling us something happy or sad about the present and then share something that evoked the opposite emotion which was going to happen. The juxtaposition of love and tragedy in this book was one of the things that I think made it so beautiful. Great review!

    ReplyDelete