“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra : A Review4 min read

(Originally posted February 16, 2014)

I first saw the title of this book mentioned on twitter and the word “Constellation” caught my eye. I looked up the book on Amazon and found out it is about 1994 to 2004 Pre/Post War Chechnya. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel from Anthony Marra. Being of my generation, I was very impressed with his writing and how his extensive research and knowledge is demonstrated throughout the book.

Many wars have taken place during my lifetime—in Rwanda, Afghanistan, the Middle East, etc. As Americans they are easily forgotten because we aren’t thrust into the middle of these wars. Something else that has often occurred to me is these wars are rarely mentioned in our media. If it weren’t for the movie Hotel Rwanda or the TV show JAG I would never have heard of the war in Rwanda or the war in Chechnya because no one thought them to be of enough importance to include in their lesson plans throughout my school years. It feels unfair to our fellow humans that their trials aren’t deemed relevant to us as Americans. Only through our own research (and lets face it, how many in our generation actually research these things?) are we connected to these historical events that have had such a huge impact on so many lives.

The novel is set in a country village, with most of the houses burnt to the ground, and a city where the majority of the buildings have been blown up, leaving only the memories of the inhabitants. From reading these scenes I felt I was taken back to World War II. The characters seemed so far removed from my reality and civilization as I know it. Many things contributed to making each character scared for his/her life. It was dangerous to drive or walk into a city without getting arrested or captured by rebels or soldiers. Even something as innocent as walking out their front door was dangerous. Every action had to be calculated in order to be able to stay alive. It was made apparent that the book is set in modern day only by random mentions of contemporary figures, technology, and media.

Taking place during war within Chechnya, the story spans from pre-war to post-war. It tells of the Chechnyans being banned from their own country to their coming home and how much the characters change over the course of the war. A few of the portrayed leave Chechnya and fight in the war or go elsewhere for their education, but all end up back home and suffer to get by. The story is centered around love, betrayal, friendship, and family. Marra’s strategy of developing characters and making connections between them at just the right time will draw you into the story. Whenever I found myself with a question about someone/something the answer wasn’t to far ahead and anytime a question was answered another was there to follow making it impossible to step away.

Throughout the novel’s development, it goes back and forth between the character’s past and present, which allows for deep insight into who they are and how they have evolved. I found many of the characters to have two sides to them—friend and foe. A lot of the characters were family and friends, but there were many instances where they wouldn’t hesitate to turn against each other for their own good. I would imagine these characteristics to be useful during time of war to save yourself. However, how you decide to act upon them will truly show which side of yourself is stronger. The main example of a character acting upon these two sides would be Ramazan, who, after being sent to “The Landfill” twice, decides to become a traitor and betrays everyone in his life, even his father Khassan. Even the most selfless character of them all, Akhmed, was both friend and foe to his closest friend, Dokka. The portrayal of these characters shows how hard it is during war to maintain relationships and how easy it is to turn your back on those most important in your life.

There is a page with one paragraph at the end of the book titled A Note About The Type, as a graphic designer this detail really stole my heart. This is the first time I have seen a section of a novel dedicated to explaining the type used and it’s history.

I would definitely add this book to your reading list if you enjoy reading novels. It made me laugh, cry and touched every emotion in between. Being the first novel I have read since college (I’ve mostly been reading biographies) it really brought me back to all the memories of reading when I was younger and how much I loved (and now love again) picking up a novel and not being able to put it down.

Buy on Amazon
(Available in Paperback, hardback, and on Kindle and Audible)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
 just so happens to be one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s favorite books, here’s the tweet she sent me after reading this review…


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