My Review of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

15797715(Note: As I began writing a review of Anthony Marra’s newest novel, I went to reference my review of this novel and discovered that I did not post a review here! So, here it is over two years later!)

“”…I don’t know where she is. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. I know nothing.”

“How do you find them?” the girl asked. She lifted her gaze to Sonja as if teetering on the precipice.

“I don’t know, Havaa. I’m sorry. I don’t. Maybe we try to find them in other people. In kindness and generosity; those things don’t disappear.”

With a backdrop of war-torn Chechnya and a focus on seven characters, suspended between the somewhat glorious past of the old Soviet Union and the current chaos of war and death, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth; May 2013) is a simple, (dare I say elegant?) novel about life and death not just in war but also in a person’s hopes and dreams that takes place in a small village near Gronzy.

The work focuses on seven characters: Dokka – whose death predates the story by only hours; Havaa – his young daughter who is sought by the Federal (Russian) authorities; Akhmed – Dokka’s neighbor who takes it upon himself to rescue Havva and keep her from certain death; Ramzan – a neighbor who is also an informant for the Federal officials; Khassan- Ramzan’s father and a historian whose life and work rose and fell on the fortunes of the Soviet Union; Sonja – A Russian doctor educated in England who returns to practice medicine and is the one to whom Akhmed turns to with a hope of securing Havaa’s safety and future; Natasha – Sonja’s sister whose life as a sex slave and whose unknown (to Sonja) death is woven throughout the book.

One of the things which struck me about this novel was Marra’s ability to weave a present-past-present narrative over the course of ten years – 1994 to 2004- in a way that winds and weaves the various and seeming unconnected threads of each character’s story into an interesting and dramatic ending in the final chapters all within an overall five day narrative. I was also struck, early in the novel, at the bleak, grey and white geographical tone Marra sets against the contrast of the brightness of Havaa and her clothing: “an orange scarf, a striped headdress, an oversized pink coat, and a sweatshirt advertising Manchester United.” (page 14) No where else do I recall bright colors, except for the blue of a dead Russian soldier mentioned later in the book.

I liked this book for its simple, yet profound, narration that primarily focuses on the characters in an intense fashion. I also liked it for how Marra sketches the back drop of the landscape in a manner that enhances, not detracts from the story.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine Review program in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

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