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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

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Overview

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 ...

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

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Overview

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.

Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Outstanding First Book
Winner of the 2013 Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction
2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winner

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Technically, 2004 was the fifth year of the Second Chechen War, but in truth, Chechnya had never recovered from the first war, which had begun 1994. Eight-year-old Haava hadn't even been born when this protracted apocalypse began, and now, with her father taken prisoner, she had become yet another victim. Anthony Marra's debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena tracks her story and that of her missing sister, but it also projects the fates of numerous other villagers caught in events that they cannot control or even avoid. A gripping novel by a talent to watch.

The New York Times Book Review - Madison Smartt Bell
…[an] extraordinary first novel…Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy…While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form…
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
The strange and invigorating thing about Mr. Marra's novel…is how much human warmth and comedy he smuggles, like samizdat, into his busy story. At heart he's a satirist, a lover not a fighter, a prose writer who resembles the Joseph Heller of Catch-22 and the Jonathan Safran Foer of Everything Is IlluminatedA Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless. It's humane and absurd, and rarely out of touch with the Joseph-Heller-like notion that, as Mr. Marra puts it, "stupidity was the single abiding law of the universe."
The Washington Post - Ron Charles
Anthony Marra's first novel…is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles…a testament to the vibrancy of contemporary fiction. 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…you simply must read this book.
Publishers Weekly
Marra’s sobering, complex debut intertwines the stories of a handful of characters at the end of the second war in bleak, apocalyptic Chechnya. Though the novel spans 11 years, the story traces five days in 2004 following the arrest of Dokka, a villager from the small Muslim village of Eldar. His eight-year-old daughter escapes, and is rescued by Dokka’s friend Akhmed, the village doctor, who entrusts her to the care of Sonja, the lone remaining doctor at a nearby hospital. Why Akhmed feels responsible for Haava and chooses Sonja, an ethnic Russian keeping a vigil for her missing sister, as her guardian is one of many secrets; years of Soviet rule and the chaos of war have left these people unaccustomed to honesty. Marra, a Stegner Fellow, writes dense prose full of elegant detail about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war. Marra’s deliberate withholding of narrative detail makes the characters opaque, until all is revealed, in a surprisingly hopeful way, but there’s pleasure in reconstructing the meaning in reverse. As Akhmed says to Sonja, “The whole book is working toward the last page.” Agent: Janet Silver, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity. Marra's vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant: religious and separatist battles have left the roadways studded with land mines, the buildings pockmarked with bullets and many residents disappeared and tortured. The characters Marra brings to this landscape, though, are thankfully lacking in pieties about the indomitability of the human spirit. At the core of the story is Sonja, a longtime doctor with a flinty, seen-it-all demeanor who, as the story starts in 2004, has taken in an unlikely pair: Akhmed, a barely competent but well-intentioned doctor who is protecting Havaa, whose father has been abducted. Akhmed is quickly put to work learning to saw off shrapnel-flayed legs, and as the novel shifts back and forth in time, each of their stories deepens. The most affecting and harrowing subplot involves Sonja's sister Natasha, who is missing as the story begins; we quickly learn the various indignities she suffered in the years before, forced into prostitution and addicted to heroin but later recovered enough to help deliver babies alongside her sister. Marra has carefully threaded his characters to work an everybody-is-connected theme, and some of those connections ultimately feel contrived. But he's a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters' fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. 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.
From the Publisher
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
New York Times Bestseller 
National Book Award Longlist Selection
A Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year
Washington Post Bestseller
NPR Bestseller
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Winner
An ALA Notable Book of the Year
A #1 Indie Pick

An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
A Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Books of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
A Library Journal Top 10 Book of the Year
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

“Brilliant.”
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

“Excellent.”
New York

“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.”
The Rumpus

 “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

Library Journal
Marra's debut novel places readers in Chechnya during its decadelong conflict with Russia and offers up an authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime. The narrative centers on three people: eight-year-old Havaa, whose father has been "disappeared" by Russian forces; her neighbor Akhmed, a failed doctor who tries to hide her in the only operational hospital he knows; and Sonja, the area's last remaining surgeon, who is trying desperately to find her missing sister. 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. Though sometimes difficult to digest—episodes of casual violence and savage brutality punctuate the otherwise graceful prose—the novel's tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances. VERDICT 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.—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780770436407
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize, and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.

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Read an Excerpt

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 them into a room; and when Dokka had promised to help him build an addition to his own house, should he ever have a child, Akhmed had thanked his friend and walked home, the knot in his throat unraveling into a sob when the door closed behind him. Carrying that lumber the forty meters from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping, but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried the small treasures that had made Dokka's house his own. There was the hand-carved chess set on a round sidetable; when moved, the squat white king wobbled from side to side, like a man just sober enough to stand, and Dokka had named his majesty Boris Yeltsin. There was the porcelain vase adorned with Persian arabesques, and beside that a cassette deck-radio with an antenna long enough to scrape the ceiling when propped up on a telephone book, yet too short to reach anything but static. There was the eighty-five-year-old Qur'an, the purple cover writhing with calligraphy, that Dokka's grandfather had purchased in Mecca. There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn't distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur'an and telephone directory returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke.

The girl's fingers braceleted his wrist. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and sprint northward until the forest swallowed the village, but standing before the blackened timbers, he couldn't summon the strength to bring a consoling word to his lips, to hold the girl's hand in his own, to move his feet in the direction he wanted them to go.

"That's my house." Her voice broke their silence and he heard it as he would the only sound in an empty corridor.

"Don't think of it like that," he said.

"Like what?"

"Like it's still yours."

He wound her bright orange scarf around her neck and frowned at the sooty fingerprint on her cheek. He had been awake in bed the previous night when the Feds came. First the murmur of a diesel engine, a low rumble he'd come to fear more than gunfire, then Russian voices. He had gone to the living room and pulled back the blackout curtain as far as he dared. Through the triangle of glass, headlights parted the night. Four soldiers, stocky, well fed, emerged from the truck. One drank from a vodka bottle and cursed the snow each time he stumbled. This soldier's grandfather had told him, the morning the soldier reported to the Vladivostok conscription center, that he would have perished in Stalingrad if not for the numbing grace of vodka; the soldier, whose cheeks were divoted from years of applying toothpaste to his adolescent acne, believed Chechnya to be a worse war than Stalingrad, and rationed his vodka accordingly. From his living room Akhmed wanted to shout, beat a drum, set off a flare. But across the street, they had already reached Dokka's door and he didn't even look to the phone that was without a pulse for ten years now. They knocked on the door once, twice, then kicked it down. Through the doorway, Akhmed watched torchlight move across the walls. So passed the longest two minutes of Akhmed's life until the soldiers reappeared in the doorway with Dokka. The duct tape strip across his mouth wrinkled with his muted screams. They pulled a black hood over his head. Where was Havaa? Sweat formed on Akhmed's forehead. His hands felt impossibly heavy. When the soldiers grabbed Dokka by the shoulders and belt, tumbling him into the back of the truck and slamming the door, the relief falling over Akhmed was quickly peeled back by self-loathing, because he was alive, safe in his living room, while in the truck across the street, not twenty meters away, Dokka was a dead man. The designation 02 was stenciled above the truck bumper in white paint, meaning it belonged to the Interior Ministry, meaning there would be no record of the arrest, meaning Dokka had never officially been taken, meaning he would never come back. "Where's the girl?" the soldiers asked one another. "She's not here." "What if she's hiding beneath the floorboards?" "She's not." "Take care of it just in case." The drunken soldier uncapped a petrol jug and stumbled into Dokka's house; when he returned to the threshold, he tossed a match behind him and closed the door. Flames clawed their way up the front curtains. The glass panes puddled on the sill. Where was Havaa? When the truck finally left, the fire had spread to the walls and roof. Akhmed waited until the taillights had shrunk to the size of cherries before crossing the street. Running a wide circle around the flames, he entered the forest behind the house. His boots broke the frigid undergrowth and he could have counted the rings of tree stumps by the firelight. Behind the house, hiding among the trees, the girl's face flickered. Streaks of pale skin began under her eyes, striping the ash on her cheeks. "Havaa," he called out. She sat on a suitcase and didn't respond to her name. He held her like a bundle of loose sticks in his arms, carried her to his house and with a damp towel wiped the ash from her forehead. He tucked her in bed beside his invalid wife and didn't know what to do next. He could have gone back outside and thrown snowballs at the burning house, or lain in bed so the girl would feel the warmth of two grown bodies, or performed his ablutions and prostrated himself, but he had completed the isha'a hours earlier and if five daily prayers hadn't spared Dokka's house, a sixth wouldn't put out the flames. Instead he went to the living room window, drew open the blackout curtains, and watched the house he had helped build disappear into light. And now, in the morning, as he tightened the orange scarf around her neck, he found a fingerprint on the girl's cheek, and, because it could have been Dokka's, he left it.

"Where are we going?" she asked. She stood in the frozen furrow of the previous night's tire tracks. The snow stretched on either side. Akhmed hadn't prepared for this. He couldn't imagine why the Feds would want Dokka, much less the girl. She stood no taller than his stomach and weighed no more than a basket of firewood, but to Akhmed she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail.

"We're going to the city hospital," he said, with what he hoped was an assertive tone.

"Why?"

"Because the hospital is safe. It's where people go when they need help. And I know someone there, another doctor," he said, though all he knew of her was her name. "She'll help."

"How?"

"I'm going to ask if you can stay with her." What was he saying? Like most of his plans, this one seemed so robust in his mind but fell like a flightless bird when released to the air. The girl frowned.

"He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. She focused on the blue leather suitcase that sat on the street between them. Eight months earlier, her father had asked her to prepare the suitcase and leave it in the closet, where it had remained until the previous night, when he thrust it into her hands and pushed her out the back door as the Feds broke through the front.

"I don't think so."

"But you don't know?" It wasn't an accusation, but he took it as one. Was he so incompetent a physician that she hesitated to trust him with her father's life even in speculation? "We should be safe," he said. "It's safer to think he won't come back."

"But what if he does?"

The longing knotted into such a simple question was more than he could contemplate. What if she cried? It suddenly seemed like a terrifying possibility. How would he stop her? He had to keep her calm, keep himself calm; panic, he knew, could spread between two people more quickly than any virus. He fiddled with her scarf. Somehow it had survived the fire as orange as the day it was pulled from the dye. "How about this: if he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"

"My father is a good idea."

"Yes, he is," Akhmed said, relieved they had this to agree on.

They plodded along the Eldar Forest Service Road, the village's main thoroughfare, and their footprints began where the tire tracks ended. On either side he saw houses by surname rather than address. A face appeared and vanished in an unboarded window.

"Pull your headscarf tighter," he instructed. But for his years at medical school, he had spent his whole life in Eldar and no longer trusted the traditional clan system of teips that had survived a century of Tsarist rule, then a century of Soviet rule, only to dissolve in a war of national independence. Reincarnated in 1999, after a truce too lawless to be called peace, the war had frayed the village teip into lesser units of loyalty until all but the fidelity of a parent for a child wore thin enough to break. Logging, the village's sole stable industry, had ceased soon after the first bombs fell, and without viable prospects those who couldn't emigrate ran guns for the rebels or informed for the Feds to survive.

He wrapped his arm around Havaa's shoulder as they walked. The girl had always been strong and stoic, but this resignation, this passivity, was something else. She clomped along, kicking snow with each footstep, and in an attempt to cheer her Akhmed whispered a joke about a blind imam and a deaf prostitute, a joke that really wasn't appropriate for an eight-year-old, but was the only one Akhmed could remember. She didn't smile, but was listening. She zipped her puffy jacket over a sweatshirt that in Manchester, England, had warmed the shoulders of five brothers before the sixth, a staunchly philanthropic six-year-old, had given it to his school's Red Cross clothing drive so his mother would have to buy him a new one.

At the end of the village, where the forest narrowed on the road, they passed a meter-tall portrait nailed to a tree trunk. Two years earlier, after forty-one of the villagers had disappeared in a single day, Akhmed had drawn their forty-one portraits on forty-one plywood boards, weatherproofed them, and hung them throughout the village. This one was of a beautiful, self-admiring woman whose second daughter he had delivered. Despite his hounding her for years, she never had paid him for the delivery. After she was abducted, he had decided to draw on her portrait a single hair curling from her left nostril. He had grinned at the vain woman's ghost and then made peace with it. She looked like a beheaded giantess staring from the trunk. Soon she was no more than two eyes, a nose, and a mouth fading between the trees.

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. He remembered another joke, this one about a lovesick commissar, but decided not to tell it. When she began straggling, he led her five minutes into the woods to a felled log unseen from the road. As they sat down, she asked for her blue suitcase. He gave it to her and she opened it, taking a silent inventory of its contents.

"What's in there?" he asked.

"My souvenirs," she said, but he didn't know what she meant. He unwrapped a hunk of dry black bread from a white handkerchief, split it in two uneven pieces, and gave her the larger one. She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn't fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.

"You shouldn't rush," he said. "There are no taste buds in your stomach."

She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. "There's no hunger in your tongue," she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.

"I used to hate black bread," he said. When he was a child he would only eat black bread if it was slathered in a spoonful of honey. Over the course of a year, his mother weaned him from it by slicing larger pieces, until his breakfast consisted of a small, sad oasis of honey on a desert of black bread.

"Can I have yours, then?"

"I said used to," he said, and imagined a brimming jar of honey, standing on a counter without a breadboard in sight.

She dropped to her knees and examined the underside of the log. "Will Ula be all right alone?" she asked.

His wife wasn't all right alone, with him, with anyone. He believed she had, in technical terms, lupus coupled with early-onset dementia, but in practice her nerves were so crisscrossed that her elbows ached when she spoke and her left foot had more sense than her brain. Before leaving that morning he had told Ula he would be gone for the day. As she gazed at him through her blank daze, he felt himself as one of her many visions, and he held her hand, and described from memory the placid pasture of a Zakharov oil painting, the herb garden and the cottage, until she fell back asleep. When she woke again that morning would she still see him sitting on the bed beside her? Perhaps part of him was still there, sitting on the bed; perhaps he was something she had dreamed up.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Anothony Marra, Author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Why write about Chechnya?

I realized that Chechnya was a place I didn't know how to spell and couldn't find on a map, but the ramifications of the wars there had reached as far north as Petersburg, where on a daily basis I saw Russian veterans soliciting for alms in the metro stations. I began reading nonfiction accounts of Chechnya and quickly became fascinated. Its history and culture has inspired writers like Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin. The accounts I read of ordinary people in remarkable situations were the kinds of stories that I felt needed to be brought to life through fiction.

But to answer the question of why set a novel in Chechnya, my answer would be that it is a setting thatmagnifies and dramatizes the moral conflicts of characters in extraordinary ways. These characters want what we all want—to live peacefully and provide for our loved ones—but their circumstances require them to make decisions the reader will hopefully never have to make, but nonetheless understand.

Readers and reviewers have commented on the beauty of the language in this novel. Can you talk a little about how you write it?

I ended up writing four first-to-last-word drafts. Each time I finished a new draft, I'd print it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and retype the entire novel. Because retyping mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from. The novel changed from draft to draft, then, from within, organically, rather than from changes that were superimposed on it. There's a scene early on when Khassan despairs as he realizes that he must again retype his 3,000-plus-page history. Thankfully, Constellation isn't nearly that long, but I still knew exactly how he felt.

I also kept a daily word-count record. My goal was to hit a thousand words every day. The days when I recorded zero words felt like wasted days. I grew up going to church and Sunday school each week, and at long last, I was able to put that Catholic guilt to good use.

The novel has some dark moments, but at the same time, it's filled with moments of humor and hope. How, and why, did you blend instances of death and loss with levity?

I once heard Allan Gurganus say that writers should strive to make readers laugh and cry on every page. It's a tall order, but I absolutely agree with the reasoning. Novels need the high notes as well as the low in order to be true to the emotional reality of life. When I traveled to Chechnya, I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.

A book I thought of while writing Constellation was City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff's novel pays tribute to the immense suffering caused by the Siege of Leningrad, but it's filled to the brim with life, love, humor, even joy, all of which only enhance and make more real the underlying historical tragedy. Hopefully, Constellation works in a similar fashion.

The novel has a unique structure. The reader moves back and forth through time, aided by a timeline that appears at the top of each chapter. How did this device, and structure, come about?

While writing the book, I kept decade-long timelines for each character. I didn't outline or map out the book prior to writing it, but I did keep these character timelines as I went in order to keep tabs on who was where when. At some point, I realized that putting a timeline at the top of each chapter would orient the reader, show the scope of the novel, and position each chapter in chronological relation to what has preceded it.
In terms of the overall structure, I felt it was important that the novel's architecture embody the individual strivings of its characters. The characters in Constellation are piecing their lives together, and as they mend their lives, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole.

Who have you discovered lately?

I had the pleasure of recently reading the remarkable We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo to prepare for our BN email correspondence. This past winter I reread several David Mitchell novels. I've been a fan of his for years, but going back through them I felt as though I was discovering them for the first time. The magical worlds he conjures—be they a Dutch trading outpost in nineteenth-century Japan or a small town in Thatcher-era England—retain enough spellbinding brilliance to feel new the second and third times I have visited them. [Ghostwritten was a 2000 Discover pick. -Ed.]

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 43 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 22, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I started this book knowing very little of Chechnya.  Turns out

    I started this book knowing very little of Chechnya.  Turns out I didn't need to know anything at all to appreciate this moving story of the human struggle to survive in an inhumane world. The author injects little bits of humor into the story that are unexpected considering the darkness of the wartime. He also has a charming habit of giving place, people and events both a forward and backward history almost as a counterpoint to the fact the the Soviets were trying their hardest to erase Chechnya' s history and make the country part of the Soviet machine.  I really loved this book and although you know that many of the characters are doomed to a gloomy end the joy is in getting to know them and their struggle to matter, to be counted, to be remembered. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to step outside of your own comfortable life for a moment and live in war torn eastern europe for a few hours.  You'll find yourself appreciating every small comfort of life that we are privileged to have.    

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2013

    A Stunning Debut Novel. Every once in a long while I come acros

    A Stunning Debut Novel.

    Every once in a long while I come across a debut novel that is exceptionally spectacular; “A constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra is one of those novels.  It reminded me considerably of “The Almond Tree” by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, another brilliant debut.  Set in Chechnya between the years of 1994 and 2004, this novel follows the lives of the members of a small town and the family of a Russian surgeon.  

    Marra’s writing is beautiful and flawless.  His character development is absolutely perfect.  Each character is so remarkably human, in both their imperfections and their virtues.  The reader is immersed in the lives of these people, through every small joy and each horrible atrocity. 

    Marra is a remarkable storyteller.  The numerous characters’ subplots are exceptionally and beautifully interwoven.  Each has touched another’s life in a direct or indirect way.   This novel enlightens the readers of the struggles of their lives and relates every powerful emotion of a lifetime of uncertainty and struggle.

    This book opened my eyes in a way few of us ever experience in the United States.  “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is captivating and demonstrative of the different ways humans choose to fight for survival in the face of injustice and war.  Marra does an exemplary job allowing the reader to see from multiple viewpoints of the same conflict.

    This novel is life altering, thought provoking, exceptionally detailed, and absolutely unique.

    “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is stunning.  It is one of the best novels I have ever read.  Ever.


    I received this novel through Goodreads First Reads.  This in no way influenced my review.  I did not receive compensation for, nor was required to, write a review.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 7, 2013

    Beautifully written book - sad but unwavering story. An eloquen

    Beautifully written book - sad but unwavering story. An eloquently written lesson that life continues and goes on even in the face of unimaginable cruelty and fate. Recommend this book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2013

    Worlds Entwined

    “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is a brilliant debut novel by Anthony Marra. It is a story about regular people trying to survive and get on with their lives in war-torn Chechnya. The horror and deprivation that the people experience is unimaginable for most of us; yet they keep plodding forward, making the best of what they do have.

    The story mainly revolves around Akhmed, a failed doctor from a small town and Sonja a successful doctor basically running a partially destroyed hospital in Grozny. When Akhmed’s neighbor, Dokka, is ‘disappeared’ he takes the now orphaned eight-year-old Havaa to Sonja in Grozny to keep her safe from the Feds who are looking for her. Akhmed had heard of Sonja from a rebel commander who had passed through their town. Sonja’s sister, Natasha, had also disappeared, but of her own volition and she constantly seeks word of her sister. While Akhmed is in Grozny his neighbor Khassan, a frustrated author and father to the town informer, looks in on Akhmed’s bedridden wife.

    As the story unfolds in what seems like no particular order we learn what brings each of the characters to the place they are now at. Eventually the “constellation” that connects them all will be revealed. The writing is prose like and weaves back and forth in time and view-point so that the reader slowly uncovers the connections and the characters become painfully real in all their flaws and shortcomings.

    I highly recommend this book with the caveat that it is not for the faint of heart. There are some very vivid scenes of death and dismemberment in it. I’ll be looking forward to Marra’s next effort.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2014

    For me A Constellation of Vital Phenomena started out a bit slow

    For me A Constellation of Vital Phenomena started out a bit slow, after the first chapter I wasn't to sure that I was even going to finish the book, thank God I persevered because by the end of chapter four I became enthralled by this book and honestly didn't put it down until I was done with it. It is a tie between Akhmed and Natasha for my favorite character, I love how sweet Akhmed is even if he is not the world's greatest doctor and Natasha is a survivor even if she is a bit selfish. Sonja was a great character to but I couldn't get myself past her brashness to look beyond into the life that had made her that way in the first place. I loved that this war was portrayed through the people and the impact that it had on the average person and not like a history book, overrun with the facts and figures of wars. It is a testament to life and death and I found myself more mindful of how I live my life and treat others since finishing the book. I was transformed so to speak.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Devastatingly beautiful. This is one of the few books that will

    Devastatingly beautiful. This is one of the few books that will truly move you. I had only basic knowledge of the Chechen wars before reading the novel, and afterwards found myself wishing that I knew more and knowing I would immediately seek out more books on the subject. Marra's ability to interweave historical facts with the personal narratives of eight diverse and interesting characters is simply brilliant. This is the best historical fiction I've read since Erik Larson's The Devil In the White City came out.  His prose is compelling and devastating-- as you read you can feel the pain that the characters are experiencing. The images of war are vivid and at some times graphic, but always right on the mark. This is a book that you fully immerse yourself in and after about 100 pages, simply cannot put down. The chapters are written on a timeline that is constantly jumping back and forth and I was very impressed by the way all the character’s storylines came back together as the book finished. Marra put an incredibly amount of thought into each word he wrote and you can feel that as you read. Do not miss this book, it will change you—you just have to let it. 

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    In my 61 years, I have read too many books to count, some good,

    In my 61 years, I have read too many books to count, some good, some not worth the paper they are written on, but most of them excellent. Mr. Marra's novel is not only exceptional, in my unprofessional opinion, it is exquisite His beautifully drawn characters spent their days, their lives with me every time I opened the book. These characters will remain with me for the rest of my days, I will turn to them for strength when I am incurring "hard times". Simply put, this novel IS "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"! Thank you. Mr. Marra for such a gift.I look forward to your next novel.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2013

    This is the best novel I have ever read. The writing is luminous

    This is the best novel I have ever read. The writing is luminous and spell binding. I am just trying to get over the fact that the author is twenty-eight years old. Highly, highly recommend.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2013

    Great!

    I loved this book. It was a great story written by a literary artist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2013

    Loved it!

    Even though the topic is sad, the writing is beautiful and takes you along on a beautiful journey.
    Good first novel.
    It would be very good for a book club.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2013

    Highly rated with a caution

    Deeply disturbing but highly engaging. Beautifully written but not for the faint of heart.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 7, 2013

    Worth reading but sad

    If you know nothing about Chechnya, and its relations with Russia, this book is an eye opener. This is Marra's first book, which is hard to believe. He is a talented and accomplished writer, already. I do highly recommend it and will be watching for his next book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2013

    I loved this book!  The story of so many lives that intertwine t

    I loved this book!  The story of so many lives that intertwine throughout the years was so cleverly written.  

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2014

    I'm still traumatized by this book

    Most depressing book I've ever read. Pretty much the whole street graphically dies - with some abuse sprinkled in it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 8, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    This book is a great novel as well as a lesson in the history of

    This book is a great novel as well as a lesson in the history of Chechnya. Anthony Marra has written a story that makes me forget where I am as I am reading it. Set in war-torn Chechnya in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens as eight-year-old Havaa witnesses the destruction of her home and the abduction of her father. A neighbor named Akhmed takes the girl to a hospital, where he hopes she will find protection.
    Sonja, an overworked and somewhat cynical surgeon at the hospital, reluctantly agrees to shelter Havaa.

    The main story takes place over the next five days, but Marra also provides a history of the struggles in Chechen. The novel is a masterfully written story as well as detailed look into the horrors of war-torn Chechnya. The language is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and the novel is sure to become a classic.
    I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a great, sweeping story and learn about Chechnya as well.

    I received my copy of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 16, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    4.5 stars Did I enjoy this book: Yes. When a book is as

    4.5 stars




    Did I enjoy this book: Yes.




    When a book is as highly celebrated as this one, I wonder why authors and publishers seek my opinion. Maybe they are interested in hearing a response from an everyday, unbiased, non-expert reader. Who knows?




    I’m afraid I have little to offer except to add to the chorus of praise this book has received already. It’s beautifully written, poignant, and very personal. It’s everything an epic story should be.




    I’m often wary of stories that skip around in time and scene. It frequently interrupts the flow of the story and throws me off topic. Marra brilliantly adds a timeline to the beginning of each chapter. It’s a perfectly relevant yet uncontrived way to remind us where we are in the story. I’ve never seen time/scenes written like that before, but I liked it so much I hope future authors take note.




    I knocked off a half star because it’s a long, laborious read.  I think most readers will find it worth the time and effort, but it ran a little long for my taste.




    Would I recommend it: Yes.




    As reviewed by Belinda at Every Free Chance Books. 








    Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange  for an honest review.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2014

    Magnificennt Magnificent!

    Perfection with all the attributes of a world classic

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014

    The book was boring and slow reading. The wording sometimes mad

    The book was boring and slow reading. The wording sometimes made no sense. Too much fluff and too many descriptive adjectives.

    Did not hold my attention.
    Would not recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2014

                In his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenome

                In his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra exposes the fortitude of the human spirit through the experiences
     of civilians in war torn Chechnya. For its subtle yet impactful commentary on the often forgotten impacts of war, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
     is a novel that should be read and appreciated as a triumph of modern literature.
                A Constellation of Vital Phenomena allows the reader to momentarily glance into the humanity that lies in every individual.
     The characters become your family, the village your hometown, and the heartbreak your own sorrow.
    Once you have read this novel, it will divide you life into a before and after: the time before being enlightened by the struggles and triumphs
    of these characters and the time after you have realized that you can never return to the person you were before reading
    A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The sheer daring Anthony Marra had to tackle one of the world’s forgotten wars in this
    heart wrenchingly honest and emotionally driven novel is rewarded, deservedly, with wild success.  

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 2, 2014

    Highly recommended

    A wonderfully written book, with time lines that help the reader keep track of the events, as the author shifts back and forth in his narrative.
    I immediately bought two copies for friends who are readers.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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