Reviewed: Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by on February 5th, 2014
Reviewed: Constellation of Vital Phenomena Cover Image

Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Novel

Anthony Marra, graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop


The recommendation came to me from a book group I had been invited to attend, and it happened to be perfect timing. I had just finished Jess Walters’s Beautiful Ruins and wasn’t yet tempted by the fill-my-head-with-applicable-knowledge nonfiction books I have checked out. So there I was, putting off what I *have* to read for what I *want* to read. What I had heard about the book: it’s sad. You’ll like it if you like the gut-wrenching ones. What I now know about the book: my recommender was right.

After I had finished the book, my initial thought was, “Well that wasn’t as bad as What Is the What,” Dave Eggers’s novel-autobiography of a Sudanese refugee (a Lost Boy). I bawled nearly the entire time through that book. At least Constellation of Vital Phenomenon has heroes in it.

Whereas What Is the What is a story of a refugee fleeing, Constellation of Vital Phenomenon tells a story of those who stayed behind. They are entirely different settings, yes, and the authors took different approaches to writing fictionalized accounts of real or could-be-real events. Eggers turned the memoir of his protagonist into a novel, and Marra pieced together the experiences of those who were living through war-torn Chechnya.

Constellation of Vital Phenomena is Marra’s first novel. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a few years ago, and his first book earned the 2013 John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle.  (The award recognizes “outstanding first books in any genre.”)

Marra writes in the author’s note, “The axis on which this novel rests is formed from two narratives shared by Islamic and Christian traditions—that of a parent asked to sacrifice a child and that of an orphan delivered into the family responsible for her orphanhood…” This theme drives the book so smoothly you’d think the book was on autopilot. Marra beautifully weaves the stories of his three primary characters, and it works. There’s very little that’s superfluous in this book. Marra’s commitment to this theme delivers these relationships and storylines from being otherwise contrived.  (Oh, Lord or Literary Fiction, deliver us from a contrived plotline!)

Is this a page-turner? Through many chapters, yes. I must admit there was a certain torture scene where I very much needed to put the book down. For readers of literary fiction, this book is highly recommended.


Summary of the plot from the book’s website:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena begins in a snow-covered village where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in a midnight raid, accusing him of conspiring with Chechen rebels.  Not far away their lifelong neighbor Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house.  But when he finds her hiding beyond the blaze, huddled beside a strange blue suitcase, he decides to seek sanctuary in the only safe place he can think of: an abandoned hospital where he has heard rumor of one brilliant but troubled remaining surgeon.  For the talented and self-reliant Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome addition to the stream of wounded rebels and refugees she treats while desperately awaiting the return of her missing sister.  But over the course of five dramatic days, her life will change as a tapestry of compassion, betrayal, and forgiveness emerges to weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and ultimately decide their fate.



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