Contemporary Literature · Historical Fiction

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

This is a backlist book that has been on my TBR for years. And every once in awhile I see it pop up on bookstagram as an old/undersold favorite of some of my fellow readers. So, when I made my Beat the Backlist choices for this past year, I figured it was time to get to this one. Similarly to A Gentleman in Moscow, I managed to wait until the very last minute to get it in this year. And similarly, it was worth the wait.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


In a small village in rural Chechnya, Havaa’s father is “disappeared,” and her home burned to the ground, by the Feds (Russian soldiers) in the middle of the night. Her neighbor and family friend, Akhmed, finds her hiding in the woods the next day with her suitcase of “souvenirs.” Knowing that she will not be safe in the village, Akhmed takes her to the only place he can think of, the abandoned hospital where the only remaining doctor, Sonja, treats the local wounded. Sonja, exhausted from overwork and dealing with her own losses, is uninterested in adding Havaa to her list of responsibilities. But over the next five days, histories and links among the three will be revealed that change both their relationships to each other and the paths of their futures.

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena – organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

This is a captivating story of interconnected lives. I love when individual narrative threads can be woven together seamlessly into a larger tapestry that, even when the individual players do not (or cannot) see the whole thing, is something special to behold when viewed from the reader’s omniscient position. And that is a story-telling style that Marra accomplished with extreme deftness in this book. It is fascinating that all the pieces come together to show how loyalties and lives have led to this point: how Havaa ended up with Sonja at the hospital and how they will move forwards together. Yet the story itself is not at all about Havaa, but rather the pasts of all those around her and how their experiences shape their decisions regarding her. Akhmed’s failures in medical school, Khassan’s failures as a parent, Sonja and her sister, Natasha’s, failures with each other, and more. Yet all these failures lead to decisions that will make a future for Havaa that she never would have had otherwise. The small ways that each story intersects with the others are fascinating. And these “star-crossed” paths of our characters are especially compelling because they are told as just smaller fragments of their much larger lives. We learn so much about the histories, memories and hopes of our characters that they are full and deep and, even when they make difficult or ugly decisions, they are still entirely sympathetic. In fact, the intricacies of their stories, the minutiae of the detail Marra gives us for each of them, makes them so real that you cannot help but put yourself in their shoes. It does not take much actual imagination to imagine them as real people. Each of them goes through their lives doing what they need to in order to survive, to provide for their families. It’s only the circumstances under which they must make the decisions that separate their actions from our own. And truly, one can only hope to never be put in some of the impossible and painful positions these characters are. That these stories are, per interviews with the author, based even in part of nonfiction accounts, is tragic beyond words. But even through all that, there is a strand of appropriately dark humor, both in the writing and in the character’s own dialogue, that brings a sort of levity to the situations and characters.

“She had believed happiness to be an absence – of fear, or pain, of grief – but here it roared in her as powerful as any sadness.”

I’m not sure that there is a good place for me to add this next bit in, so I’ll just go ahead and pop it here. I was grateful for the mix of realism and hope that permeated this novel. Although it is never easy to lose a character, and one never wants to hope for anything but a happy ending, it is important to stay true to reality, if one is writing with actual representation. And this book is nothing if not an attempt to truthfully represent a widely unknown, incredibly difficult, at times terrible, part of world history (late 90’s and early 00’s in Chechnya). So, I liked that some stories had what one would consider “happy” endings, as much as possible under the circumstances of loss and deprivation. But I also really liked that some endings were known only to us as readers, though their families/friends will never know what actually happened (this “ending” was perhaps the most gratifying to me, personally…but I won’t say who it is, to avoid spoilers). And I loved that some endings, though nothing but tragic, were nevertheless satisfying in the knowledge that their sacrifices are ones that were made with purpose. And too, at the end of the day, perhaps these less than happy endings may shine a light on so many actual persons’ fates.

“But no life is a line, and hers was an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb, searching for the light it once held.”

As far as the writing itself, it’s honestly gorgeous. Marra has a way with words that emphasizes the small things, the things that make a life a life, a memory a memory, so perfectly. It’s such a compellingly and intelligently written novel, but one that never gets so wrapped up in the language that the story itself is lost. That line, of elaborate writing that doesn’t overtake the plot, is one I do not often see walked this well. I loved how warm and rich this story felt, even when the events were nothing but cold and horrifying. To that point – there were definitely some graphic moments, but never anything gratuitous. As a small additional note, I loved Marra’s use of one particular device: he sprinkled, randomly throughout the novel, many glimpses of insight into the future based on little moments or objects in the present. For example, how Natasha’s “map” of the city ends up in a museum years from now or a wounded soldier’s end-of-life living alone with all his mother’s cats. These little asides were never long, never distracted from the main plot, but add an extra, extremely poignant, layer to the reader’s understanding and impression of the characters and setting.

Honestly, I don’t think I have the words to accurately describe how flawless all the little moments and connections in the novel were. There were so many times that I actually let out an audible sigh of contentment, at how exactly right a detail seemed, how perfectly placed. And the connection of Havaa and Sonja, the roles one family played in the fate of the other, and the metaphorical irony in their finding each other after all that, is timeless. A situation explained and encompassed perfectly by the title (I don’t always “get” titles, but this one was brilliant). The only word I could think of, upon finishing the last page, was “immense” – partially in the story’s scope in bringing light to the human experience, and partially in a way that I cannot explain. I just felt like, upon finishing, I was filled with something…immense.

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