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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013)

by Anthony Marra

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,3661836,485 (4.25)373
In a rural village in December 2004 Chechnya, a failed doctor Akhmed harbors the traumatized 8-year-old daughter of a father abducted by Russian forces and treats a series of wounded rebels and refugees while exploring the shared past that binds him to the child.
  1. 20
    The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander (boo-radley)
  2. 10
    The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire by Khassan Baiev (gust)
    gust: Marra baseerde een van zijn hoofdpersonages op deze autobiografie.
  3. 10
    The Angel of Grozny by Åsne Seierstad (gust)
    gust: Marra liet zich naar eigen zeggen door dit journalistieke boekwerk inspireren.
  4. 00
    The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy (BookshelfMonstrosity)

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» See also 373 mentions

English (181)  Italian (1)  Piratical (1)  All languages (183)
Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
Slow to start working for me, but ultimately a hard hitting and touching look at wartime survival and the theme of sacrifice. Set over 5 days in the post-second war guerrilla phase of fighting in the Chechen Republic in a small corner of Chechnya, this first novel is hardly epic in scope yet does range over the preceding decade and draws for the reader an outline of the brutal wars that took place there.

The question of sacrifice permeates the novel. When the story opens, the Russians are raiding a small village and taking away a man, Dokka, whom we understand immediately will not be left living much longer. His 8 year old daughter Havaa escaped, but the Russians want her too (shared familial guilt is also a Chechen concept, as is illustrated elsewhere). Their neighbor Akhmed, kind and compassionate and self-acknowledged worst doctor in Chechnya, will take her to a place where she will not be found, and in a few days an informer will turn him in for it, and that will do for Akhmed, our noble though not exactly ethically scrupulous hero.

A more interesting character though is Ramzan, the informer. At the start we feel the scorn one naturally feels for the informer who turns in his neighbors for execution, handsomely benefiting materially from his crimes. Later we learn that Ramzan has a much more complex and painful story than first appears, and if we can't forgive, we might at least comprehend.

Ramzan's father Khassan struggles deep in his soul with what his son has done. Though they must share a house in the village, he has not spoken to his son since the informing began almost two years previous. He endures guilt for the death Ramzan has brought to their neighbors and for his own failings as a father. He wonders if, like Abraham, he is called to sacrifice his son, and if he can kill his child by his own hand.

And there's Sonja, ethnically Russian but born and raised in Chechnya. A surgeon in London when the first war breaks out, she leaves her life and breaks off her pending marriage to return home and find her sister Natasha when the Russians withdraw after two years that have left Chechnya in ruins and Natasha missing.

While for the first 150 pages or so I found this to be an average book, interesting but afflicted with an obvious case of first-time-itis, the book really comes together beautifully and powerfully. The plot threads are unwound nearly perfectly, and the characters gain richness and depth and fragility. Which ultimately I think leaves me with a 4 star rating for a book that felt like it was a 5 by the time I turned the last page. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
Give it 4.5 stars. This is wartime novel that deserves high regard. ( )
  ben_r47 | Feb 22, 2024 |
This took me a fair time to really get into, but once I did, I felt gripped - around throat and heart - by the tragic and absurd losses that gather momentum and gravity towards the end of the book. Without much guidance or context, and an initially disorienting series of flashbacks, Marra drops the reader into the deep end of Chechnya around the most recent turn of the century, as the country tries and fails twice to extract itself from Russian colonisation in a pair of bloody internecine wars. But while the political and martial backdrop is important, the really vital phenomena are the relationships, emotions and choices in which the main characters stumble through a wintery bleak world in which moral compasses are spinning and family ties are questioned or betrayed. Marra's writing is delightful - precisely crafted, and funny, gentle or shocking by sudden turns. How to maintain hope amid despair: that's both a prevailing theme in the book, and the experience of at least one reader willing their way with increasing anxiety and urgency towards the last page. ( )
  breathslow | Jan 27, 2024 |
This is a book that does everything right. I got it from the library but I'm going to buy it because it's so beautifully written that I found myself reading certain lines and paragraphs more than once. This is the kind of book that gives you book hangover because you can't start another book right away. Parts of it are brutal but the author manages to gentle you through it somehow. Do yourself a favor and get it when you have all day to read. ( )
  dhenn31 | Jan 24, 2024 |
Another book along the line of The Orphan Master's Son, in that it was excellent, beautifully written, but difficult to read because of the subject. War is so much more than the headlines portray. First Worlders, in general, are so unaware of the personal tragedies wrought by wars fought far from our shores, and we do humanity a disservice by not informing ourselves of the full human condition. ( )
  jemisonreads | Jan 22, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
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.

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Marra, Anthonyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Blumenbach, UlrichÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacobs, StefanieÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prandino, LauraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the plowed field.

-Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad
To my parents and sister
First words
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.
She was harder to pin down than the last pickle in the jar.
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena---organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
“A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out. It’s called evolution.”  (Abu’s brother - p. 108)
“And where are the books I asked for?”
“...A third cousin in the West is asking for them from Amazon.”
“What’s that?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then in London you will be an au pair. Do you know what that is? It’s a French word. It means you will watch the children while the parents are at work.”

“So I will be a grandmother?” (p. 196)
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In a rural village in December 2004 Chechnya, a failed doctor Akhmed harbors the traumatized 8-year-old daughter of a father abducted by Russian forces and treats a series of wounded rebels and refugees while exploring the shared past that binds him to the child.

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