A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel - Anthony Marra

When my wife finished reading this last week she told me that 5 stars wasn't enough. I wish I could say that I grabbed the still-warm kindle from her hands and started to read, but that would be a lie. What I did was stallI, thinking to myself that her enthusiasm might lead to some unpleasantness if I wasn't equally enthralled. She patiently waited for me to finish reading MaddAddam, to transfer some reviews to BookLikes, to rescue the plants from encroaching Winter, and to change the cat litter more than once, before she gently urged me to get on with it. Kudos to her, because this deserves to be the literary event of 2013.

Americans have never paid much attention to foreign wars, even those we've started. The news feeds about the Chechen struggle for independence rarely penetrated our consciousness, especially after 9/11. Truthfully, I thought this was about Croatia. (Note to self: Be a better listener.) After three spellbound days of reading, I now know something about the two wars that tore through this region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This debut novel is set in a small village near a small city in the ruined Republic of Chechnya in 2004. Anyone who had the chance fled long ago; those who remained were keeping their sanity by measuring what they'd lost: especially the luxury of taking anything - or anyone- for granted. In the span of five days we meet ordinary people who share the misfortune of living in extraordinary times. One character is actively engaged with the military-as an informer- yet the others: his heartbroken father, two reluctant doctors and a war orphan, suffer the consequences of his treachery.

I think Suzanne's review does an excellent job of capturing the magic of Marra's accomplishment, so without further ado:

Suzanne's review 
5 of 5 stars
Read from September 30 to October 04, 2013

This novel deserves at least 6 or 7 stars out of 5. I can't stop thinking about the horrors of Chechnya, a country that I probably would have a hard time finding on a map. The characters, all built of their country's strife are also in some way torn apart by it. This new author, Anthony Marra, creates new and vivid images which help us see, hear, feel, taste and smell: love, fear, desperation, guilt and just about every emotion his finely drawn family of characters have. For example:

"She drifted, a kelp rope on the tide that washed away her country, family and future."

"The rind of buffer states diminished as republics peeled away."

"You will survive, she told herself. You will turn the holes in your life into storage space.
For months they'd run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed."


Haava, the youngest character, is introduced to the reader on the first page. She is precocious, adored and the nexus of much of this saga. Each of the other characters have a significant role in the next few days of her life, it is amazing how Marra is able to seamlessly create a collage of these characters' lives, loves, foibles, self destructive qualities and the effects of, living in a country which is ravaged by desperation and cruelty. The refugees who pass through their small town, the townspeople who are "disappeared " are not lost because they are carefully jig sawed into this masterpiece .


As I think about the war crimes described in detail, I like to think that this happened over there, in the middle of nowhere, by starving peasants. The problem is that it is happening in the Middle East and Africa. Some of the Americans were involved in it in Abu Grave with the knowledge and permission of at least some senior officers and some of the American statesmen. On our soil, 2 very bright, alienated teens in Colorado set traps and picked off as many of their peers as they could before killing themselves. How many times do we read about young men gang raping girls or maliciously attacking a suspected gay person merely because they can. Happily lynchings are now few and far between. But we certainly have the same DNA as the Chechnian rebels and Feds. When we are hungry, hopeless, unloved, drunk or drunk with power, we destroy ourselves by destroying others.

Marra also writes about love, familial love, fraternal love and romantic love. The love that these characters feel keep their deceased siblings, parents, lovers and friends alive. It made me think of my brother, parents, aunts and uncles, and friends who I carry around with me. Death doesn't really take them away , just moves them to another place.

Two of the characters are artists. Their pictures also resurrect that which has been destroyed. Two of the characters are doctors who try preserve life too. One of the most important characters is a historian , again trying record for future generations what has passed. The saddest character is the informer who has given up his neighbors, friends and his self respect after the rebels have taken away his manhood, his chance for posterity.

I can't think of a more important or more satisfying book. Don't leave this on your To Read List.