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Book Review: A Consellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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Book Review:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

constellation of vital phenomena


Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Anthony Marra

Format: Trade Paperback, 388 pages

Publisher: Random House of Canada

ISBN: 978-0-307-36262-9

Pub Date: May 7, 2013


Summary from publisher:

A novel of unflinching honesty, gutting humanity, haunting detail, and beautiful, raw hope dangling like a bare bright light in a basement.

A haunting novel set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya that is both intimate and ambitious in scope. Eight-year-old Havaa, Akhmed, the neighbour who rescues her after her father’s disappearance, and Sonia, the doctor who shelters her over 5 dramatic days in December 2004, must all reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.

In his bold debut, Anthony Marra proves that sometimes fiction can tell us the truth of the world far better, and far more powerfully, than any news story. You will not forget the world he creates–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and its characters will haunt you long after you turn the final page.


Book review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is deceptively a debut novel, which reads with the maturity and mastery of an eloquent and superbly gifted writer.

The plot, while sometimes serendipitous, lasts no more than five days, while the breadth of the story spans a rich history of seven people, even within the deplorable and harsh cruelties of the civil war that occurred in Chechnya, Russia during the 1990s.

While the result of the brutality of war is ever prevalent and graphic in the novel, the voice and tone of the book is reverently sombre, tender in its recollection, and intimate and graceful in its description and metaphor. It’s poetic prose without the self-consciousness of literary narcissism.

Marra creates detail and writes language with perfect precision and an ease that the fundamental ingredients of a beautifully told story is not only natural without being abrasive, it is also brilliantly evocative in its lyrical cadence and infuses the characters and their story with great feeling and depth.

But, make no mistake in underestimating Marra’s novel by restricting its merit to stylistic eloquence and literary genius alone. Even in its eloquent and dramatic title, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and the mystery and lucidity found in the elusive fog of its cover design, both cannot deny the validity of the truth in which the book is grounded.

It is clear, a laborious amount of time was taken to research the historical setting and events that surrounded the Chechen conflict, which not only support the believability of the story in its graphic and creative detail, but also induces a passionate response from its reader, which transforms him from simple voyeur to fully engaged participant who is able to experience the emotional landscape that the book’s realism authentically reinforces especially through its acts of war, torture, and betrayal.

The characters, too, are vivid personalities—ones that you will harbour affection for, others you will abhor and be bewildered by. The dislike of one character does not equate the dislike of a book. It is indifference to characters that turn me away from reading, but in this novel, its character-driven intimacies are the life spark of my connection and passionate response to the complexity of the characters’ horror and the significance of the novel’s story.

I was moved by each one:

Khassan’s dedication to history, his second love to his secret desire, and his accrued disappointment and loneliness that moved him to eventually converse with a pack of dogs.

Dokka’s optimism and generosity of self, in faith toward nomadic refugees, and his equal power and precision with a chess piece as with a plum.

Havaa’s intelligence and precocious thoughtfulness, as well as the secrets kept in her blue, emergency suitcase.

Akhmed’s capacity for goodness in times of disparity and the fluid ease in which he draws portraits to commemorate the lost, the dead, the haunted.

Ramzan’s blind and fearless need for self-preservation, yet his maddening desperation for a father’s love.

Natasha’s absence both in her own life as well as in others, yet her perseverance to survive the most difficult trauma.

And Sonja’s stubborn resilience at the cost of her softer humanity in order to survive the exhaustion and terror of the evidence of casualties of war, and the all-encompassing obsession with the disappearance of her sister.


The fluidity in which Marra writes is effortless and melodic. So many sentences in his work transform from the simplicity of description into stark, poetic revelation—and it’s in these lines that the depth of the story is not only intensified, but also made more beautiful.

Here are some of my favourite lines from the novel:


He was losing her incrementally. It might be a few stray brown hairs listless on the pillow, or the crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind the headboard, or a dark shape dissolving in soap. As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there. – p.63

The things in his life that caused him the most sorrow were the things he’d lived with the longest, and now that everything was falling they became pillars that held him; – p.81

Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it. – p.120

When finished, she opened the doors to he new closet and bureau and felt pleased with her ingenuity. This is how you will survive, she told herself. You will turn the holes in your life into storage space. – p.182

They undressed by degree, a button here, shirtsleeve there, making a show of their shortcomings, their bodies androgynous with deprivation. It was remarkable to trust someone enough to be silly like this. She lay back. It was dark. Her lips found his. – p.321

So much of his marriage was a disappointment—childlessness, ailing health—but they were blessings, now, in the end, when he had to let go. Yet he’d grown to depend on the act of longing….knowing that doubt, like longing, could sustain him. – p.329


And while I’m an avid reader who has enjoyed the taste of a sampling of good books, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, moved me to awe by its grace and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, I wept. Its raw intensity and devastation will make you cry out and render you deeply anguished, while its fragility and fight for redemption will convince you to hope.

While I know I am not the first, the second, nor even the third person to read this novel—I am certainly one of a long line of people who have come to believe in its remarkable power to conjure a constellation of its own—and its story is as vital as it is transformative.

Thank you, Mr. Marra. This novel was a privilege to read.

Characters:  5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.


About the Author:

From Anthony Marra’s Official Website. Photo credit: Smeeta Mahanti. http://anthonymarra.net/about/


Anthony Marra was born in Washington, D.C. He has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Narrative Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading. In 2012, he received the Whiting Writers’ Award. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he will begin teaching as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction this fall. He has studied and resided in Eastern Europe, traveled through Chechnya, and now lives in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his first novel, will be published in fifteen countries.

– From Anthony Marra’s Official Website



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Have you read “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra yet? If so, what did you think of it?

What’s most important to you in a book? The plot? Its characters? The style in which it’s written? Its conflict?

If you haven’t yet read the book, what do you think the title means? What do you think “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is?


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