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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

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4.12  ·  Rating Details  ·  28,716 Ratings  ·  4,705 Reviews
New York Times Notable Book of the Year * Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year

In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decis
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Paperback, 416 pages
Published February 4th 2014 by Hogarth (first published May 7th 2013)
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Erika It was my favorite book all year. I was blown away by it, especially the ending.
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
The history of ethnic strife in Chechnya is long and confusing. Anthony Marra bypasses the facts and figures and takes us directly into the lives of ordinary people trying to make a meaningful existence amid the rubble and death and ongoing violence. Living in a state of constant trauma changes all the rules. Young and old, ethnic Russians and Chechen Muslims, the characters' lives intersect in such a way that they cannot hate each other with the intensity prescribed by their ancestors.

With a co
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Diane
This beautiful and haunting novel is one of my favorite books of 2013. It takes place in post-war Chechnya, but don't be alarmed if you don't know much about the Chechen conflict with Russia — the rich storytelling and the gorgeous prose will draw you in, and by the end of the book you could captivate an audience with these wartime stories.

But first, you must meet Havaa, a precocious little girl whose father was just taken by federal forces, probably never to be seen again. Havaa ran into the w
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Shelby *trains flying monkeys*
Upon starting this book I had heard of Chechnya. I couldn't point it out on a map though. Or even have told you what part of the world it was in.


This book takes you there. Not just in mind..but in spirit also. The author states he chose to write about this area after hearing about the death of journalist Anna Polikovskaya from her reporting she did from Chechnya. He read up on the non-fiction reports he could find from the area. I'm glad he did it. My eyes would have glazed over from the enormi
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Michael
Jan 28, 2014 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michael by: Booknblues
I loved this portrait of ordinary people doing their extraordinary best under the duress of war in Chechnya. Their human spirit shines through like the grass that grows in the cracks of a sidewalk. I was inspired with Marra’s ability to portray how in the face of war’s devastation, people focus their purpose on whatever family members or shreds of community they retain, and when even that is gone, they forge a virtual family.

Most of the story takes place in a few days in 2004, with flashbacks t
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Jill
Jan 27, 2013 Jill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Every now and then, a book comes along that restores my faith in the future of the novel all over again. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is such a book.

How can a debut novelist write like this lyrically and searingly? Anthony Marra has “the gift” and his work is more assured than writers who have toiled for years.

I’d like to say I was immediately captured by his novel, but alas, that wouldn’t be true. My lack of familiarity with war-torn Chechnya – indeed, with Russian history – distanced me
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Melanie
Dec 04, 2013 Melanie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

December 4th, 2013: This is not on the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2013 but it should have been.

In a fantastic profile of the writer Colum McCann in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, the writer sat with a class of high school students from Newtown:

"He told them about an organization he recently helped found, Narrative4, which brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days t
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Trish
“Time became more important the closer to death one was, so an extra few hours to make peace with the world were worth more than years.”
This is Marra’s debut novel, and in it we see his queerly outsized talent and deep knowledge of human motivation and possibility. Where did he get the knowledge from which he created this book, and how did he come to know it? In what he calls his Bibliography, Marra credits Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, Åsne Seierstad’s T
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Jenny (Reading Envy)
I originally learned about this book when it was longlisted for the National Book Award. It didn't make the shortlist, but personally I would have traded it with the Lahiri, since that book had similar themes to her previous works, and this felt new.

Phew. About halfway through, I had to take a break from this book. It is an intense read of a too-recent war-torn Chechnya, from a perspective not quite the same as what we were hearing in American news.

The author moves backwards and forwards in ti
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Teresa
Jan 07, 2014 Teresa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Teresa by: Cheryl
I'm not saying I didn't like the beginning of this novel, but when I arrived at page 139, I became hooked, absolutely hooked. The passage (actually one long sentence) is about a younger brother along with his family (whom the readers never see again) at the village doctor's (a better artist than he is a doctor) to describe his 'disappeared' older brother in order for the doctor to draw his portrait. The lyricism of the long sentence is what captivated me at the time, but it also encapsulates muc ...more
Chrissie
I know how I felt while reading this book, but why? Why did I constantly want to do anything else but listen? Why near the conclusion did I just listen to get to the end?

This book is set in a small Chechen village in 2004, thus during the Second Chechen War. The story is told through numerous flashbacks. It is of course about the ravages of war. It is grim reading, and until the end there is little that inspires any hope. Although the author does infuse the story with humor, it is ironic humor,
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Ron Charles
Anthony Marra’s first novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.

Go ahead and sneer at the thin atmosphere of America’s MFA programs, but this Washington-born graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is 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 impo
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Julie
Updating this review 10/28/15. Wishing I could read this again for the first time.

In a hospital in Volchansk, Chechnya, on a boarded-up gash where a window once sat, a crude mural depicts the city as it had been before it was reduced to rubble. Looking at the mural the viewer is spared, for as long as she can pretend, the reality that the open space would offer: a void of destruction and death.

In his astonishing debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra paints a mural of war so
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Richard Derus
Jul 23, 2014 Richard Derus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves:
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa 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 Sonja, t
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Cheryl
Jun 13, 2014 Cheryl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Around The World Members, Readers of war stories
Recommended to Cheryl by: Diane
She had believed happiness to be an absence of fear, of pain, of grief. But here it roared in her, as powerful as any sadness.

This is a novel of many things:

Of sadness portrayed powerfully and beautifully.

Brief bouts of happiness amid steely denouncements of the pain of war. Pain: bold and brusque.The absence of sentimentality--as one should expect when reading about the perils of war.

Write what you know. This is what they teach you in MFA programs. And yet Marra, Iowa Workshop MFA graduate an
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Dem
May 27, 2013 Dem rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Antony Marra while beautifully written is certainly not a light read in my opinion.

I found myself reading this story very slowly as there is a lot to digest. The writing is beautiful and the story is interesting and very well researched.
Anthony Marra takes a subject and a place I for one knew very little about, war-ravaged Chechnya in 2004, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. The story centres on a war ridden village that most people have
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Rae Meadows
May 30, 2016 Rae Meadows rated it it was amazing
Oh, what a joy to read a fully-realized, beautifully written, totally engrossing novel. I haven't read what GR friends have said about this book--I'm coming to it a little later than most--which made it all the more of a pleasure. The novel brings to life the cruel absurdities of war with moments of light and humanity. I knew little of Chechnya, and Marra does a masterful job of supplying enough information without weighing down the narrative. I have a few small quibbles, the first being the ove ...more
Julie Ehlers
It took me a little time to get into this book. The writing was beautiful from the very, very beginning, the subject matter was interesting and vital, and there was an impressive amount of humor for such a grim topic, but I was frustrated by what I saw as a surplus of characters. You don't really need all these people, I thought impatiently. You could have easily cut a few to speed up the story a bit. Wow, how wrong was I? The threads of the different characters' stories eventually wove together ...more
Rebecca Foster
(4.5) An unforgettable story of coping with loss and uncertainty. Marra matches America’s best contemporary novelists with his defense of the human spirit in the face of wartime atrocities. Despite gory evidence to the contrary, there is much more to existence than bodily survival; all share in both physical vulnerability and innate dignity. Perhaps, as Philip Larkin declared, “What will survive of us is love.”

(My full review appeared in the January 2014 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Ellen
Jan 20, 2013 Ellen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm about halfway through this book. I'm usually a fast reader, but I'm forcing myself to slow down. It is brilliant and it is heartbreaking and I don't want to leave these pages and these characters.

Now I'm finished and this is one of the best books I've read in years. Gorgeous writing that offers a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves. It's brutal, and it's dark, and it's frightening, but I believed every word. I'm still there.
Nikki
Yet again I am left baffled by the glowing reviews and the hype. This book proved tedious, convoluted and an insomniac's dream.

There was no plot, at least not a discernible one for the majority of the book. There are tedious, long-winded entries of characters that end up giving little to the overall book. There is repeated foreshadowing in the variety of "in seven years he will become a [insert profession here]," and mind you these little inputs added nothing to the main characters or the story
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Carol
Mar 10, 2014 Carol rated it really liked it
I didn't like Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena but I could not put it down. I read every single brutal passage. It was exquisitely painful. Marra dropped me in Russia, smack dab down in the political conflict of Chechnya, a recent time in history, yet so out of my radar. Marra's fictional work got right in my face, history as seen from the civilians living this life, the personalization of war and all its horrors.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is presented to us in non-lin
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Stuart
Apr 23, 2013 Stuart rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This has been a great year for reading fiction for me and it's only one third over. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is also, for me, a very unique book because while it's about the Soviet Union, in particular Chechens and Russians living in Chechnya through the 1990s and 2000s, it's a very Western book in terms of attitude and style. The deep seated anguish and yearning, toska, that resides in anyone, including me, who has been touched by Russian culture is essentially absent. In Marra's nove ...more
Larry Hoffer
If you read as much as I do (or even if you don't), you're bound to come across a book that is hailed by literary critics and readers as one of the greatest things ever, but no matter how much you try and read it and are determined to love it, it just doesn't click for you. I know that happens most often with the classics, but it certainly happens with "regular" fiction and nonfiction as well.

Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is such a book for me. Reviews have hai
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Cheryl
Anthony Marra said that he wrote the kind of book that he wanted to read. His interest in the Chechnyan region was stimulated by spending university time in St Petersburg, shortly after the assassination of a Russian journalist who wrote extensively about the Chechen wars. Novels about the Chechnyans don't exist, so he wrote one. He said he didn't want to write about the policies, the history, the politics, but about the people, the civilians.

The novel opens with "On the morning after the Feds
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Carol Brill
Feb 04, 2016 Carol Brill rated it it was amazing
Where do I start? Gut-wrenching story, Ambitious research, intelligent writing, layered and skillfully crafted plot twists--the skilled writing and research earn the 5 stars.
The brutality of war in Chechnya and the inhumanity of torture so finely wrought and raw, there were many times I had to stop reading. Every character is so human and damaged, Havaa's father has lost all his fingers to torture. His friends and neighbors, Akhmed, Ula, Ramzan, and Khassan have all suffered war's indignities.
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Jen
Jul 27, 2015 Jen rated it it was amazing
This is a book that made me pause, reflect and pause again. To say this was an excellent book would be an understatement. This is a story about death, grief, hope and joy. The story takes place in worn torn Chechny and flashes back over the characters lives during 5 precious days. It begins with the horror of a father, Dokka, taken violently away by the Feds during the middle of the night. He saves his 8 year old daughter, Haava, by forcing her out into the black of night with her already packed ...more
Francisco
Jun 27, 2014 Francisco rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books I was glad I read the old fashioned way. At some point the frequency of beautiful sentences became too great and I could no longer resist the urge to underline. The author mentions in an interview at the end that he re-typed drafts of the novel four times from first to finish. "Because re-typing mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from." And you can tell, by how easy the author makes it look, that each word ...more
Kelli
Apr 26, 2015 Kelli rated it it was amazing
Having just finished this book I literally do not have the language to review it. It is a breathtaking debut that is so beautifully written. Simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, this left me smiling through tears at possibly the best ending I have ever read. My ties to Russia may have slightly influenced my love of this novel but regardless, this is one of the best I've ever read.
Jessica
Jan 17, 2015 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Chechnya has apparently spent most of its existence in a state of war, occupation, or extreme instability. It's not something that many Americans know a lot of about, myself among them. I knew the term "Chechen rebels" would pop up in newscasts once in a while but I didn't really know what that meant in the grand scheme of things.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena illuminates the lives of several people in a small Chechen village during the Second Chechen War: Havaa, a young girl whose father h
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Lucy
Aug 28, 2013 Lucy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Last night, I went to dinner with some friends and told them about this book and how much I was enjoying reading it. Of course, thy asked what the title was and when I said, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," they both said that it was too confusing to remember. I agree with them. It is odd and seemingly senseless.

The beauty and perfection of this hard-on-the-tongue title revealed itself on page 184, however, when Natasha, the beautiful but left behind sister, who is holed up in her Chechen
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ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist ...more
More about Anthony Marra...

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“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” 237 likes
“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” 145 likes
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