A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
May 2013 Indie Next List
— Anderson McKean, Page & Palette, Fairhope, AL
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In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content from the author.
Praise For A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel…
New York Times Bestseller
National Book Award Longlist Selection
A Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year
Washington Post 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
—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
“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.”
“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
Hogarth, 9780770436421, 416pp.
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, how much did you know about Chechnya? Which of the novel’s cultural details surprised you the most? What can fiction reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot?
2. How did your image of Akhmed shift throughout the chapters? Despite his many weaknesses, how does he become a source of strength for the loved ones in his life? How does his art restore the humanity around him?
3. Why is Sonja able to remain clear-eyed and resilient? What does she teach Havaa about being a woman, and about the limits of being a healer?
4. Discuss the betrayals that drive the storyline. Would you become an informant if your life depended on it? Can suspicion and corruption ever rise to a level that makes loyalty impossible?
5. What is Dokka’s greatest vulnerability? What do his daughter’s memories of him say about his hopes and fears?
6. Discuss the title (in chapter 24, Sonja stumbles across it in a Russian medical dictionary’s definition of life). What is phenomenal about the life force and the body’s intricate capabilities?
7. What is Khassan’s key to survival? Is his image of homeland and heritage accurate?
8. What is the effect of the timeline, encompassing five days in 2004 and flashbacks from a decade earlier? How does this approach echo the reality of memory and longing?
9. What does it mean for Sonja and Natasha to be ethnically Russian? When is this an advantage, and when is it a disadvantage? How are cultural identities shaped in the midst of political, military, economic, and religious power struggles?
10. What accounts for the very different fates of Natasha and Sonja? Is Natasha’s beauty an asset or a liability?
11. How is the concept of family—from the sisters’ relationship to Akhmed’s marriage to Ula—transformed in a land of warlords?
12. In his review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles describes the novel as “a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.” Discuss the book’s closing lines in that context. What does A Constellation of Vital Phenomena ultimately say about anguish and joy?