A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra (New York: Hogarth, 2013. 384 pp).

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 The 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.

Born of War and Whimsy

Some of the most powerful stories are those born out of conflict and war. Stories like Fiddler on the Roof or Schindler’s List based on the novel Schindler’s Ark have told the terrible tale of the holocaust to many. In the same way, Anthony Marra tells the story of very recent Russian history in his debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Marra sets the tone in a very different way than one would expect, however. In the background of the Chechen wars, Marra combines both whimsy and desperation.

“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” (3).


Set between 1994-2004, the story weaves back and forth through history. Technically, 2004 was the fifth year of the second Chechan war, but Marra bleeds the two wars together. Though it opens in the wake of the disappearance of the postmodern war, it is a story about kindness in the midst of a terrible portion of history. Eight-year-old Havaa hadn’t been born when the Chechen war started, but she certainly proves herself to be another victim of the senseless violence.

The bulk of the story spans five days in 2004 when Dokka, a citizen of the Muslim village Eldar is arrested. Dokka’s friend, Akhmed, whom we meet in the quotation above, is the failed village doctor. He rescues Dokka’s daughter Havaa from the burning blaze of her own home, and entrusts her to the care of another doctor, Sonja, who is the resident doctor and last remaining surgeon of a nearby hospital. Sonja is trying to find her sister, Natasha, who was forced into prostitution and gained a heroin addiction, while at the same time teaching Akhmed to saw off shrapnel-laden legs from the mines plaguing the roads nearby.

Marra, meanwhile, takes the reader back and forth through the annals of the Chechan wars, introducing us to minor characters that we grow to enjoy while seamlessly letting us know of their future death in the next chapter. He tells the reader how war can tear apart even the most noble of souls, and how war has no respect for life whatsoever.

Until the Final Pages

Not having known much of Chechnya and the long war within, I know now I wasn’t prepared for the horrors Anthony Marra portrays within A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. There are scenes of immense, grotesque violence that portray war to be truly despicable. Yet, like seen in the quotation above, he manages to portray a certain amount of whimsy amidst such terrible conflict. Marra teaches the reader how it is possible to laugh in the wake of terrible gore with true resilience. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those novels that is incredibly hard to read. Not because of the how it’s written, no, because of the stories it depicts. But, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a book that is written for its final pages, one that keeps the reader reading until its finality. Those are the best kind of books.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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