Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Marra)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra, 2013
Crown Publishing
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780770436421

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.
In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels.

Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her 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 the talented, tough-minded 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. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister.

But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., University of Southern California; M.F.A.,
   Iowa Writers Workshop
Awards—Pushcart Prize; Narrative Prize; Whiting Writers' Award
Currently—lives in Oakland, California

Anthony Marra is an American writer, whose debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was published in 2013.

Marra attended the Landon School in high school, and he would go on to graduate from the University of Southern California with a BA and the Iowa Writers Workshop with an MFA.  He is 2011-2013 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

He has contributed pieces to The Atlantic, Narrative Magazine, and MAKE Magazine.

His short story "Chechnya" won a 2010 Pushcart Prize and the 2010 Narrative Prize. He won a 2012 Whiting Writers' Award. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/31/2013.)

Book Reviews
The strange and invigorating thing about Mr. Marra's how much human warmth and comedy he smuggles, like samizdat, into his busy story. At heart he's a satirist, a lover not a fighter, a prose writer who resembles the Joseph Heller of Catch-22 and the Jonathan Safran Foer of Everything Is Illuminated.... A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless. It's humane and absurd, and rarely out of touch with the Joseph-Heller-like notion that, as Mr. Marra puts it, "stupidity was the single abiding law of the universe.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.... While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life.... [T]that image is the textbook definition: “a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
Madison Smartt Bell - New York Times Book Review

Marra is trying to capture some essence of the lives of men and women caught in the pincers of a brutal, decade-long war, and at this he succeeds beautifully....his storytelling impulses are fed by wellsprings of generosity....[the] ending is almost certain to leave you choked up and, briefly at least, transformed by tenderness.
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal

Anthony Marra's first a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles…a testament to the vibrancy of contemporary fiction. Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important.... I haven't been so overwhelmed by a novel in years…you simply must read this book.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

A powerful tale.... The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa…rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force.... There are many reasons to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. To enter the tragedy of Caucasus history that has been dishonored by the Boston Marathon bombings, allegedly committed by two ethnic Chechen immigrants; to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs.... But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances.
John Freeman - Boston Globe

This beautiful work will matter long after Chechnya has disappeared from our headlines.... The sense of connectedness is as meaningful as the particulars of it.... Over and over again, this is an examination of the ways in which many broken pieces come together to make a new whole. In exquisite imagery, Marra tends carefully to the twisted strands of grace and tragedy.... Everything in A Constellation of Vital dignified with a hoping, aching heartbeat.
Ramona Ausubel - San Francisco Chronicle

Remarkable.... [A] novel about love as much as war.... In the aftermath of Boston, in a world where all our lives are linked more closely than ever before, these are words to hold close.
Tricia Springstubb - Cleveland Plain Dealer of the most accomplished and affecting books I've read in a very long time.... Though the lives lived in this novel can seem unbearable, what Anthony Marra has done is to diligently describe them in passionate, extraordinary prose.
Meg Wolitzer - NPR

With remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, Marra keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters.... Marra creates a specific and riveting world around his characters, expertly revealing the unexpected connections among them. While Marra doesn’t shy away from the very real conflict of the region....this novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted. Constellation deserves to be on the short list for every major award. It’s an absolute masterpiece.
Sarah Jessica Parker - Entertainment Weekly

(Starred review.) A complex debut…[Marra writes] with elegant details about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) An authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime.... As he shifts in time through the years of the two Chechen wars, Marra confidently weaves those plots together, and several more besides, giving each character a rich backstory that intersects, often years down the line, with the others.... [T]he novel’s tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Extraordinary...Marra collapses time, sliding between 1996 and 2004 while also detailing events in a future yet to arrive, giving his searing novel an eerie, prophetic aura. All of the characters are closely tied together in ways that Marra takes his time revealing, even as he beautifully renders the way we long to connect and the lengths we will go to endure.

A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity. Marra's vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant.... But he's a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters' fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer. A somber, sensitive portrait of how lives fray and bind again in chaotic circumstances.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider using these LitLovers talking poinst in discussing A Vital Constellation of Phenomena:

1. Talk about each of the characters—Akhmed, Haava, Sonja, Natasha, Khassan, and Ramzan. Do you care about any of them? Whom do you find particularly sympathetic? Do your opinions of any of the characters change over the course of the novel?

2. One of the book's themes is our inability to know the depths of another being. In a beautiful paragraph (end of Chapter 3) Sonja ponders Haava who is lying next to her—Haava possesses 206 bones, 606 muscles, 2.5 million sweat glands, and 100 billion cerebral neurons; all this Sonja can know. She cannot fathom, however, "the dreams crowding [Havva's] skull" or "the mystery the girl would spend her life solving." Do you find that to be true in real life—how deeply can we know another being? Does fiction, perhaps, allow us insights into other beings that we cannot attain in our own lives? Do you feel you know the loved ones closest to you?

3. Follow-up to Question 2: The narrator frequently jumps ahead by years, even decades, to inform readers of what happens to various characters—whether they live...or die...or grow senile.... What effect does this create on you, the reader?

4. A emphasis on art runs throughout the novel. Akhmed draws portraits and posts them throughout the village; Haava "rebuilds" the body of her childhood nemesis, Akim, using Akhmed's portrait of him; Natasha recreates the view of a cityscape blown away by shelling, and Maali is nearly as invested in Natasha's project as Natasha herself. Why is art so significant in this book? What role does art play in Akhmed's and Natasha's lives—and in the lives of others.

5. Talk about the characters' religious beliefs or lack of beliefs? How does the war affect the faithful...and nonfaithful alike? How would your faith be affected?

6. In interviews author Anthony Marra has said he chose to write about Chechnya after spending his junior year in St. Petersburg during the time of the Chechnyan war. While there, he was fascinated by accounts of how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary situations—the kinds of moral choices they had to make. Talk about the characters in A Constellation of vital Phenomena who dramatize the tough moral choices Marra refers to...especially Ramzan and Khassan. Are there others? What choices do they make and why? How might you have responded in such horrific circumstances? Does morality change depending on the context?

7. SPOILER ALERTS! Follow-up to Question 6: Should Khassan have killed his son—is such an action just or moral? Does learning Ramzan's backstory, change your opinion of him...perhaps justify his later actions?

8. Trace the six-degrees-of-separation between the characters, their actions, and final consequences. In other words, how are the characters interconnected? What might the author be suggesting by such connectedness—both within the confines of the novel and, perhaps, in the real world outside the scope of the novel? What kind of worldview does Marra seem to project? Do the coincidences feel contrived? Or do you see them as organic, part of the gradual unfolding of the novel?

9. A great deal is made in the novel of the desire for characters to be buried at home. Notes with names and addresses are sewn into clothing so families can be notified and thereby claim the body of the loved one. Why is burial at home so important? Is it a tradition peculiar to that culture...or a universal desire?

10. The book contains a fair amount of humor—the banter between Akhmed and the nurse Deshi, the reference to Barbie Doll's emaciated waistline, Akhmed's confusion over Ronald Reagan and Ronald MacDonald, and his astonishment at how the U.S. elections transfer power from one president to the next—"It makes me wonder how [Russia] lost the Cold War." Where else do you find humor...and why do you suppose the author included such moments in an otherwise dark story?

11. Think about the structure of the novel, as it moves back and forth through time, and the inclusion of timelines at the head of each chapter. Why might Marra have devised a disjointed structure for his story? What might it suggest about the fractured lives of his characters? What do you, as a reader, think is gained—or lost—using such a structure?

12. Why are the Feds so intent on finding Haava? What do they want with her?

13. What drove the two Chechnyan wars? What were the conflicts involved? What have you learned about the war that you were unaware of before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena? While the Chechnyan war was ongoing, how much attention did you pay to it?

14. What do you find most shocking in the account of the war? What is most horrifying or disturbing? Where do you find displays of human kindness to counteract the brutality? Is there anything hopeful in the book?

15. What is the meaning and/or significance of the book's title?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2021