A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra


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New York Times Notable Book of the Year

In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content from the author.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780770436421
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 93,073
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

ANTHONY MARRA is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), which won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and appeared on over twenty year-end lists. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and France’s Prix Medicis. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, California. His story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, is forthcoming from Hogarth (Fall 2015). Visit http://anthonymarra.net/

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Excerpted from "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Anthony Marra.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


A Conversation with Anothony Marra, Author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Why write about Chechnya?

I realized that Chechnya was a place I didn't know how to spell and couldn't find on a map, but the ramifications of the wars there had reached as far north as Petersburg, where on a daily basis I saw Russian veterans soliciting for alms in the metro stations. I began reading nonfiction accounts of Chechnya and quickly became fascinated. Its history and culture has inspired writers like Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin. The accounts I read of ordinary people in remarkable situations were the kinds of stories that I felt needed to be brought to life through fiction.

But to answer the question of why set a novel in Chechnya, my answer would be that it is a setting thatmagnifies and dramatizes the moral conflicts of characters in extraordinary ways. These characters want what we all want—to live peacefully and provide for our loved ones—but their circumstances require them to make decisions the reader will hopefully never have to make, but nonetheless understand.

Readers and reviewers have commented on the beauty of the language in this novel. Can you talk a little about how you write it?

I ended up writing four first-to-last-word drafts. Each time I finished a new draft, I'd print it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and retype the entire novel. Because retyping mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from. The novel changed from draft to draft, then, from within, organically, rather than from changes that were superimposed on it. There's a scene early on when Khassan despairs as he realizes that he must again retype his 3,000-plus-page history. Thankfully, Constellation isn't nearly that long, but I still knew exactly how he felt.

I also kept a daily word-count record. My goal was to hit a thousand words every day. The days when I recorded zero words felt like wasted days. I grew up going to church and Sunday school each week, and at long last, I was able to put that Catholic guilt to good use.

The novel has some dark moments, but at the same time, it's filled with moments of humor and hope. How, and why, did you blend instances of death and loss with levity?

I once heard Allan Gurganus say that writers should strive to make readers laugh and cry on every page. It's a tall order, but I absolutely agree with the reasoning. Novels need the high notes as well as the low in order to be true to the emotional reality of life. When I traveled to Chechnya, I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.

A book I thought of while writing Constellation was City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff's novel pays tribute to the immense suffering caused by the Siege of Leningrad, but it's filled to the brim with life, love, humor, even joy, all of which only enhance and make more real the underlying historical tragedy. Hopefully, Constellation works in a similar fashion.

The novel has a unique structure. The reader moves back and forth through time, aided by a timeline that appears at the top of each chapter. How did this device, and structure, come about?

While writing the book, I kept decade-long timelines for each character. I didn't outline or map out the book prior to writing it, but I did keep these character timelines as I went in order to keep tabs on who was where when. At some point, I realized that putting a timeline at the top of each chapter would orient the reader, show the scope of the novel, and position each chapter in chronological relation to what has preceded it.
In terms of the overall structure, I felt it was important that the novel's architecture embody the individual strivings of its characters. The characters in Constellation are piecing their lives together, and as they mend their lives, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole.

Who have you discovered lately?

I had the pleasure of recently reading the remarkable We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo to prepare for our BN email correspondence. This past winter I reread several David Mitchell novels. I've been a fan of his for years, but going back through them I felt as though I was discovering them for the first time. The magical worlds he conjures—be they a Dutch trading outpost in nineteenth-century Japan or a small town in Thatcher-era England—retain enough spellbinding brilliance to feel new the second and third times I have visited them. [Ghostwritten was a 2000 Discover pick. -Ed.]

Customer Reviews

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 60 reviews.
Dragonette More than 1 year ago
I started this book knowing very little of Chechnya.  Turns out I didn't need to know anything at all to appreciate this moving story of the human struggle to survive in an inhumane world. The author injects little bits of humor into the story that are unexpected considering the darkness of the wartime. He also has a charming habit of giving place, people and events both a forward and backward history almost as a counterpoint to the fact the the Soviets were trying their hardest to erase Chechnya' s history and make the country part of the Soviet machine.  I really loved this book and although you know that many of the characters are doomed to a gloomy end the joy is in getting to know them and their struggle to matter, to be counted, to be remembered. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to step outside of your own comfortable life for a moment and live in war torn eastern europe for a few hours.  You'll find yourself appreciating every small comfort of life that we are privileged to have.    
Nikki_F More than 1 year ago
A Stunning Debut Novel. Every once in a long while I come across a debut novel that is exceptionally spectacular; “A constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra is one of those novels.  It reminded me considerably of “The Almond Tree” by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, another brilliant debut.  Set in Chechnya between the years of 1994 and 2004, this novel follows the lives of the members of a small town and the family of a Russian surgeon.   Marra’s writing is beautiful and flawless.  His character development is absolutely perfect.  Each character is so remarkably human, in both their imperfections and their virtues.  The reader is immersed in the lives of these people, through every small joy and each horrible atrocity.  Marra is a remarkable storyteller.  The numerous characters’ subplots are exceptionally and beautifully interwoven.  Each has touched another’s life in a direct or indirect way.   This novel enlightens the readers of the struggles of their lives and relates every powerful emotion of a lifetime of uncertainty and struggle. This book opened my eyes in a way few of us ever experience in the United States.  “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is captivating and demonstrative of the different ways humans choose to fight for survival in the face of injustice and war.  Marra does an exemplary job allowing the reader to see from multiple viewpoints of the same conflict. This novel is life altering, thought provoking, exceptionally detailed, and absolutely unique. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is stunning.  It is one of the best novels I have ever read.  Ever. I received this novel through Goodreads First Reads.  This in no way influenced my review.  I did not receive compensation for, nor was required to, write a review.
WashingtonianLB More than 1 year ago
Devastatingly beautiful. This is one of the few books that will truly move you. I had only basic knowledge of the Chechen wars before reading the novel, and afterwards found myself wishing that I knew more and knowing I would immediately seek out more books on the subject. Marra's ability to interweave historical facts with the personal narratives of eight diverse and interesting characters is simply brilliant. This is the best historical fiction I've read since Erik Larson's The Devil In the White City came out.  His prose is compelling and devastating-- as you read you can feel the pain that the characters are experiencing. The images of war are vivid and at some times graphic, but always right on the mark. This is a book that you fully immerse yourself in and after about 100 pages, simply cannot put down. The chapters are written on a timeline that is constantly jumping back and forth and I was very impressed by the way all the character’s storylines came back together as the book finished. Marra put an incredibly amount of thought into each word he wrote and you can feel that as you read. Do not miss this book, it will change you—you just have to let it. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In my 61 years, I have read too many books to count, some good, some not worth the paper they are written on, but most of them excellent. Mr. Marra's novel is not only exceptional, in my unprofessional opinion, it is exquisite His beautifully drawn characters spent their days, their lives with me every time I opened the book. These characters will remain with me for the rest of my days, I will turn to them for strength when I am incurring "hard times". Simply put, this novel IS "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"! Thank you. Mr. Marra for such a gift.I look forward to your next novel.
Manhattan136 More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written book - sad but unwavering story. An eloquently written lesson that life continues and goes on even in the face of unimaginable cruelty and fate. Recommend this book!
Yapjoco More than 1 year ago
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is a brilliant debut novel by Anthony Marra. It is a story about regular people trying to survive and get on with their lives in war-torn Chechnya. The horror and deprivation that the people experience is unimaginable for most of us; yet they keep plodding forward, making the best of what they do have. The story mainly revolves around Akhmed, a failed doctor from a small town and Sonja a successful doctor basically running a partially destroyed hospital in Grozny. When Akhmed’s neighbor, Dokka, is ‘disappeared’ he takes the now orphaned eight-year-old Havaa to Sonja in Grozny to keep her safe from the Feds who are looking for her. Akhmed had heard of Sonja from a rebel commander who had passed through their town. Sonja’s sister, Natasha, had also disappeared, but of her own volition and she constantly seeks word of her sister. While Akhmed is in Grozny his neighbor Khassan, a frustrated author and father to the town informer, looks in on Akhmed’s bedridden wife. As the story unfolds in what seems like no particular order we learn what brings each of the characters to the place they are now at. Eventually the “constellation” that connects them all will be revealed. The writing is prose like and weaves back and forth in time and view-point so that the reader slowly uncovers the connections and the characters become painfully real in all their flaws and shortcomings. I highly recommend this book with the caveat that it is not for the faint of heart. There are some very vivid scenes of death and dismemberment in it. I’ll be looking forward to Marra’s next effort.
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
For me A Constellation of Vital Phenomena started out a bit slow, after the first chapter I wasn't to sure that I was even going to finish the book, thank God I persevered because by the end of chapter four I became enthralled by this book and honestly didn't put it down until I was done with it. It is a tie between Akhmed and Natasha for my favorite character, I love how sweet Akhmed is even if he is not the world's greatest doctor and Natasha is a survivor even if she is a bit selfish. Sonja was a great character to but I couldn't get myself past her brashness to look beyond into the life that had made her that way in the first place. I loved that this war was portrayed through the people and the impact that it had on the average person and not like a history book, overrun with the facts and figures of wars. It is a testament to life and death and I found myself more mindful of how I live my life and treat others since finishing the book. I was transformed so to speak.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best novel I have ever read. The writing is luminous and spell binding. I am just trying to get over the fact that the author is twenty-eight years old. Highly, highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It was a great story written by a literary artist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though the topic is sad, the writing is beautiful and takes you along on a beautiful journey. Good first novel. It would be very good for a book club.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Deeply disturbing but highly engaging. Beautifully written but not for the faint of heart.
EZReaderAZ2 More than 1 year ago
If you know nothing about Chechnya, and its relations with Russia, this book is an eye opener. This is Marra's first book, which is hard to believe. He is a talented and accomplished writer, already. I do highly recommend it and will be watching for his next book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!  The story of so many lives that intertwine throughout the years was so cleverly written.  
Anonymous 5 months ago
The title of this work caught my eye intially, and I ended up devouring this book. This story of struggle is often sad, often hopeful, sometimes funny. The writing is beautiful; definitely worth the read for literature lovers.
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Really makes you think.
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This book was so different from what I generally read but I am so glad I bought it. I was educated somewhat about Chechnya and Russia. So sad to learn the way war changes people from this very riveting story that seems so real.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago