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Stegner Fellow Iowa MFA and winner of the Atlantic's emerging writer contest Anthony Marra has written a brilliant debut novel that brings to life an abandoned hospital where a tough minded doctor decides to harbour a hunted young girl with powerful conseuences      In the final days of December 2004 in a small rural village in Chechnya 8 year. Verbose and mundane in tone but somewhat enlightening to a reader unfamiliar with Chechen history Recently mesmerized by a stunning debut one that made me step back and look at the people in my life a little appreciatively I found myself craving something along the same lines a story with a deep and resounding message Having seen a few comparisons made between A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and A Place for Us in weight of the story not necessarily style I thought this would be a smart choice I have to say I don t get the comparisons From tone texture and significance there are little to no similarities Utter confusion is my first attributable thought to the storyline and characters that live among the pages Anthony Marra drops the reader into the midst of the second Chechen war and spends zero time on the background of the region giving the reader very little to draw from It took a bit to get my bearings and situate the cast but it wasn t all in vain Marra presents a character driven novel and flits back and forth between the first Chechen war that started in 1994 and the midst of the second in 2004 The heart of the story encompasses a young girl left fatherless by a family friend turned informer and the people willing to put themselves on the line to keep her safe The author takes his time unraveling each character s backstory and in turn examining the relationship dynamics Incredibly sad and with very few bright spots it was the culmination of the varying storylines that brought things full circle and made the arduous trek feel worthwhile There s no denying Marra has a very distinct style Unfortunately for me I can t say it s one I find myself eager to experience again His writing is incredibly dense which meant I was aware of each word on every page making this somewhat of a taxing experience As I reached the end of the book I struggled to decipher the point of the story or pointedly the why I took a step back let things resonate for a few days and came to the conclusion that reading isn t always about turning that final page with a life affirming message as a token of completion Sometimes it s simply about succumbing to the journey living breathing and experiencing a time and space I never will Thank you to the Traveling Sisters Brenda Jan and Marialyce for sharing this experience with me It was the great discussion this book churned up and the resources you all provided that kept me from raising the white flag in surrender

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Icate 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. I loved this portrait of ordinary people doing their extraordinary best under the duress of war in Chechnya Their human spirit shines through like the grass that grows in the cracks of a sidewalk I was inspired with Marra s ability to portray how in the face of war s devastation people focus their purpose on whatever family members or shreds of community they retain and when even that is gone they forge a virtual family Most of the story takes place in a few days in 2004 with flashbacks to the two periods of invasion of Chechnya by Russian Federation forces in 1994 and 1999 which was marked by massive civilian casualties by bombings and artillery strikes During extended periods of occupation systematic repression and torture was rampant to assure that this republic did not break away as so many other Soviet states did after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 The book is not concerned with the politics and combat of the specific war but with the miracles of human nature within the society impacted by such events Marra stretches hard to make language capture this life as a constellation of vital phenomena Almost everyone is a hero in this tale The two main characters are doctors Akhmed is a Muslim primary care doctor in a rural community in southern Chechnya He saves an orphan girl Havaa from federal forces that killed her father and burned her home In the first pages we experience him finding eight year old Havaa and placing her in sanctuary at the hospital in the nearby city of Volchansk Sonja is a female surgeon of ethnic Russian origin who has taken over the running of the hospital in this bombed out city The price she asks of Akhmed in return for the favor is for him to serve on her medical staff which calls for daily forays from his caretaker role for his disabled wife The evolution of Akhmed and Sonja s relationship was wonderful for me She is superbly competent but gruff and cynical with no bedside manner whereas Akhmed is warm and self deprecating but poorly euipped for the task He was always interested in art than medicine His most recent art was putting up around his village large portraits on panels of the disappeared a touching act Marra bases on a real event Sonya schools him in trauma care and lessens his despair by instilling a sense of purpose and he in turn helps humanizes her makes her laugh and raises her hopes of finding her missing sister Humor helps break down barriers between them He was an incompetent doctor but a decent man he believed compensating for his physician limitations with his empathy for the patient his understanding of pain I shouldn t spend so much time with you You ll turn me into a first rate surgeon and a boor I think it s the other way around she said A gauze of afternoon cloud cover had wrapped around the sky and she looked up and into it I m overcome by the inexplicable desire to speak to you with common courtesy Havaa s story of resilience and poignant efforts to make sense of her family s loss makes her a hero too Although Sonja generally hates kids we see Havaa s precocity begin to win her heart when the child first speaks to her of her disappeared father He s an arborist He knows everything about trees I m still a minimalist Do you know what that is Havaa nodded expecting the uestion It s a nice way of saying you have nothing It s important to know big word the girl said repeating her father s maxim No one can take what s indside your head once it s there You sound like a solipsist Another key character is Khassan a friend and neighbor of Akhmed who has worked his whole life on a 3000 page history of the Chechen The muted voice of the people is epitomized by the succession of regimes that have refused to allow him to publish any of it except the segments up to the Middle Ages He is further silenced by the interruption of his friendship and regular chess playing with Havaa s father and by his termination of all communication with his remaining family member a son who has been tortured into becoming an informer for Russian security forces The most moving part of the book for me lies in Khassan s finding relief from his isolation by disclosure of the story of a secret love affair from his past to Akhmed s bedridden and demented wife This story takes place against the background of Stalin s transplantation of their families along with half a million of native Chechens to Kazakhstan which lasted from 1944 until repatriation of survivors in 1957The prose in this book is what often makes it special to me Sometimes it calls too much attention to itself and sometimes it comes off as clumsy reuiring reading the sentences than once to achieve understanding As an example of success here the torment of Khassan s son is captured as he experiences the impact of having to become an informer Snow had thickened the ground The uiet of the house followed him into the woods Two hundred meters in raising his head in a long scream he tore a hole in the silence through which he could walk freelyHere is an example that does well at first in capturing Akhmed s shock of dealing with a victim of a landmine but to me it overreaches toward the end he wasn t the first man he had seen writhing like a noodle in a pot of boiling water not the first he had seen with half his shin hanging by a hinge of sinew But when he saw this man it was like seeing the first man for the first time he couldn t think couldn t act could only stand in shock as the air where the man s leg should have been filled the floor and the room and his open mouth Then the man s pulse was a haphazard exertion against his finger I admire Marra so much for trying and often succeeding that I have to forgive him for flying too close to the sun sometimes Here is a final example which sings so well about Ahkmed s feeling of loss of his wife to dementia but to me stumbles at the end He was losing her incrementally It might be a few stray brown hairs listless on the pillow or the crescents of fingernails tossed behind the headboard or a dark shape dissolving in soap As a web is no than holes woven together they were bonded by what was no longer there The dishes no longer prepared or eaten The walks no longer walked the summer woods the undergrowth parted by their shins The arguments no longer argued no stakes nothing either wanted or could lose The love no longer made desired imagined or mourned The illness had resorted to an innocence he was unwilling to pollute and the warmth of her flesh cocooning his was a shard of their life dislodged from both their memoriesAgainst the forces of erasure the characters nurture life through their memories spark hopes for each other and find windows for humor and for love Morality is freuently compromised but the wellsprings of their personal integrity are preserved No wonder 13 out of 15 of my GR friends rendered 4 or 5 stars for this debut novel Marra looks too young to believe he could create this out of imagination research and visits to Chechnya But he wrote it at 28 years of age and a Stanford professor where he was a graduate student in creative writing was uoted as saying his skills were already fully developed In an interview included at the end of this book he cites the influence of Benioff s City of Thieves which despite its portrayal of suffering at the Siege of Leningrad is filled to the brim with life love humor even joy all of which only enhance and make real the underlying historical tragedy

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Old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces Fearing for her life she flees with their neighbour Akhmed to the bombed out hospital where Sonya the one remaining doctor treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees Over the course of 5 dramatic days Akhmed and Sonya reach back into their pasts to unravel the intr. I picked this book for my read an award winner challenge After reading the blurb I knew this is going to be a sad story but what I didn t know was that it was going to be this disappointing So many glowing reviews made me think that it was going to be a book that I would going to remember for a very very long time that too in a good wayStory revolves around Akhmed who is taking care of his bedridden wife but has to leave her behind to take his neighbor s daughter Havaa to local hospital There he reuest Sonja to take in Haava First Sonja refuses to take in Havaa but Akhmed volunteers to help her with patients in exchange and Sonja relents Sonja is the sole doctor running this hospital taking care of ill She is also looking for her sister Natasha who has been missing for some time Khassan a 79 year old is neighbour of Akhmed His son Ramzan is a Russian informant and the one responsible for killing so many of his own village men Author has woven a story around these characters going back and forth in time Though good at times I have few issues with the book1 I had a hard time placing the events because change in time frame was so sudden Most of the times I was few pages in before I realize that I was reading events from past2 Different story lines took too long to converge in the end Other than Akhmed and Khassan none of the character was impressive They were dull 3 Sentences like these In twenty eight years and seven months at a limnology conference in Cologne the girl would meet the man she was to marry nine years later At the age of forty six she would have her one and only child in the same maternity ward she was born in a boy to carry her father s name hers would be the second had sot hold him At the age of sixty eight she would hold her first grandson also to carry her father s name hers would be the third handsThis book is full of these kinds of references Initially I was very impressed but halfway through I realized they were not related to the story They re part of the epilogue that we don t have in this book It was told us through these I was tired of these by the end of the bookBut there are plenty of glowing reviews for this book here on GR If blurb impressed you go ahead Perhaps you might end up liking this


10 thoughts on “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

  1. says:

    The history of ethnic strife in Chechnya is long and confusing Anthony Marra bypasses the facts and figures and takes us directly into the lives of ordinary people trying to make a meaningful existence amid the rubble and death and ongoing vio

  2. says:

    Verbose and mundane in tone but—somewhat?—enlightening to a reader unfamiliar with Chechen history Recently mesmerized by a stunning debut

  3. says:

    This beautiful and haunting novel is one of my favorite books of 2013 It takes place in post war Chechnya but don't be alarmed if you don't know much about the Chechen conflict with Russia — the rich storytelling and the gorgeous prose will draw you in and by the end of the book you could captivate an audience with these wartime stories But first you must meet Havaa a precocious little girl whose father was just tak

  4. says:

    I picked this book for my “read an award winner” challenge After reading the blurb I knew this is going to

  5. says:

    As well as being the most cleverly structured novel I’ve read all year A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon also features some of the most memorable characters Ostensibly the novel is set in Chechnya though in many ways the novel depicts a generic modern war and the terrifying lawlessness that prevails in an invaded country I have to say I learnt next to nothing about the Chechen wars Marra uses an invented

  6. says:

    Anthony Marra’s Chechnya is every bit as bleak and brutal as the post apocalyptic world Cormac McCarthy creates in The Road Life is valued by the governing powers as cheaply as in the Nazi concentration camps The novel isn’t so much about the wars in Chechnya per se as how individuals relate to each other when law a

  7. says:

    We all know as William Tecumseh Sherman once noted that “War is Hell” Later Jean Paul Sartre concluded that “Hell is other people” It therefore stands to reason that war is other people Good thing for me that it's about others because what Marra described in this book sounded awful We got chopped off fingers burned down houses torture induced ratting and a whole host of other atrocities It was set in C

  8. says:

    Upon starting this book I had heard of Chechnya I couldn't point it out on a map though Or even have told you wha

  9. says:

    I loved this portrait of ordinary people doing their extraordinary best under the duress of war in Chechnya Their human spirit shines through like the grass that grows in the cracks of a sidewalk I was inspired with Marra’s ability to portray how in the face of war’s devastation people focus their purpose on whateve

  10. says:

    45 Stars “When they took him he held your name right there in his chest and you were with him even if you didn't know it When he reached the end he did not die He called your name and began to live in you”

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