A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Author:Marra, Anthony
Position:Book review

By Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra, who lives in Oakland, California, graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived in Eastern Europe and studied Chechen history and literature. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his debut novel.


THE STORY: In war-ravaged Chechnya in 2004, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the Second Chechen War, a group of characters' lives intertwine as they struggle to survive. Sonja, a gifted, tough-minded surgeon who delivers babies in a bombed-out hospital, takes in Akhmed, an incompetent village physician, and the eight-year-old Havaa when Russian soldiers drive them out of their Muslim village after Havaa's father is accused of aiding Chechen rebels and is killed. For Sonja, the arrival of these refugees may jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over five days, as this trio and others weave together stories of past and present, from the fall of the Mongol Empire to Stalin to the Chechen Wars, Sonja realizes the importance of maintaining her humanity in the face of an insane, unjust world.

Hogarth. 400 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780770436407

Entertainment Weekly *****

"[W]ith remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, he keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters. ... While Marra doesn't shy away from the very real conflict of the region, whether describing the scene outside Sonja's hospital--the wall-less rooms, the massive craters, the rubble--or the paranoia that exists when your neighbor is very often your enemy, this novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted." SARAH JESSICA PARKER

Washington Post *****

"As the elements of this complicated plot begin to align in ways too tragic and moving to anticipate, the past resolves into focus; the future is freighted with anguish but flecked with hope. I haven't been so overwhelmed by a novel in years." RON CHARLES

NPR *****

"The story, which takes place in Chechnya, moving back and forth in time over recent history, includes some tough scenes, such as descriptions of torture and amputation. There's a terrifying, Wild West lawlessness at work. But it's exactly that--and the brilliant writing--that kept me committed to that world and the people in it." MEG WOLITZER

Cleveland Plain Dealer ****

"It covers the First and Second Chechen Wars, tucks in memories of the region...

To continue reading