Glenn Sumi's Reviews > A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
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it was amazing

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 because this is an exceptional first (!) novel

I’d never really understood the conflicts in post-Soviet Russia and Chechnya, but Anthony Marra’s heavily researched and deeply moving novel taught me a lot and got me caught up in the lives of a handful of characters simply trying to survive those times.

Over five days in a small town in Chechnya, the fates of several people – including two very different physicians (one brilliant, the other hopeless), a precocious eight-year-old orphan, an ethnic Russian involved in sex trafficking, a Chechen informer and his proud father, a historian who defended his country all over Europe – become intertwined.

It’s a hugely ambitious novel, shuttling back and forth in people’s lives and providing swaths of history as well as small, intimate details about the main characters. It’s all done in an exposition-heavy style that only occasionally feels laboured and fussed over. (I’m not sure we needed so many constructions like: “And [insert minor character name] would go on to become a millionaire after emigrating to New Jersey eight years later...”)

It took me a while to understand the architecture of the novel, and for the symbols – which include a blue suitcase, a Makarov semiautomatic pistol, a chess set, a mural in a hospital, a London souvenir, and drawings of people who have been “disappeared” from the village – to take on weight and significance. But after the halfway mark, I began to appreciate the careful way the story was constructed and looked forward to seeing how the narrative would play out.

I especially liked how Marra employed humour to contrast with scenes of unbearable pain and suffering. Except for the young orphan, all the characters in the book are flawed; but they’re believable and sympathetic, even the young informer, the closest thing the book has to a villain, who does what he does for a reason.

The final chapters, where all the threads of the story come together, are just exquisite. I finished the book late at night while riding the subway, and I was crying so much I thought strangers were going to ask me what was wrong. (Even now, rereading the end of Chapter 25 is harrowing, and the book’s final pages, which recount an unlikely reunion, are so full of hope and humanity that you’ll be smiling through your tears.)

Marra references a short Tolstoy novel set in Chechnya, Hadji Murád, several times – that work even provides an epigraph. I’m curious to read it now. And I’ll definitely read Marra’s follow-up collection of stories, The Tsar Of Love And Techno, which also has a Slavic setting.

And whenever I see the name Sonja (with a "j"), I'll think of one of the characters in this book.
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Reading Progress

August 28, 2015 – Shelved
August 28, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 14, 2018 – Started Reading
March 14, 2018 –
page 52
12.5%
March 16, 2018 –
page 95
22.84% "Beautifully written, and such a brutal and tragic setting, but so far It all feels like background. There’s so much exposition. I think Doerr did it better in All The Light."
March 18, 2018 –
page 172
41.35%
March 18, 2018 –
page 293
70.43%
March 19, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Bianca (new) - added it

Bianca Fantastic review. I tried to listen to the audiobook, but I couldn't get into it - could have been a timing problem. I may try it again or just read it the classic way.


message 2: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Ansbro As I read your superb review, Glenn, I was itching to suggest The Tsar Of Love And Techno but, as ever, you were ahead of me.


Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac) A wonderful review of a marvelous novel that’s my second favorite novel of all time!


Debbie What a fine review of this incredible book. I read it a couple of years ago and still think of it and shudder. I would recommend this book to everyone. Your review is the best!


message 5: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken One of my favorite contemporary books. Thanks for the shout-out that might attract more readers to it!


message 6: by Steven (new)

Steven Godin Hope to read this year, so good to see you give it the thumbs up!


Julie Ehlers Yay! I saw your update where you said there was too much exposition, and I remembered I felt exactly the same way at first and ended up loving it. But I didn't say anything because I didn't want to interfere with the process. :) So happy you ended up loving it!


Glenn Sumi Bianca wrote: "Fantastic review. I tried to listen to the audiobook, but I couldn't get into it - could have been a timing problem. I may try it again or just read it the classic way."

Thanks, Bianca. I'd recommend the classic way. I don't think this book would work as well in audio. I found there was a lot of exposition and many characters were introduced in the first quarter. I found myself flipping back to reread stuff. Hope you go back! As I point out, it took a while for all the threads to come together for me, but eventually they did.


Glenn Sumi Kevin wrote: "As I read your superb review, Glenn, I was itching to suggest The Tsar Of Love And Techno but, as ever, you were ahead of me."

Thanks, Kevin! I forgot you were one of the champions of (the) Tsar! I hope to read that collection soon. ;)


Glenn Sumi Shawn wrote: "A wonderful review of a marvelous novel that’s my second favorite novel of all time!"

Thanks, Shawn! Loved your review. And now you've got me curious about Chapter 18... although if it's the one I'm thinking, I'm totally with you. (Chapter 25 was the one that gutted me.)


Glenn Sumi Debbie wrote: "What a fine review of this incredible book. I read it a couple of years ago and still think of it and shudder. I would recommend this book to everyone. Your review is the best!"

Thanks, Debbie! It's such a powerful story about a part of the world I didn't really pay attention to before. I like that Marra included his research material (even for particular scenes) at the end of the book so readers can go deeper into the subjects.


Dianne Stellar review, Glenn. So glad you ended up loving this! I loved his "Tsar of Love and Techno" even more.


message 13: by Robin (new) - added it

Robin Beautiful review, Glenn. I have this one sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me. Many of the things you said in praise of this book were true for me in The Tsar of Love and Techno, so I completely identify with the tear-inducing ending as well as the brilliant flashes of humour in an otherwise dark story.


Glenn Sumi Ken wrote: "One of my favorite contemporary books. Thanks for the shout-out that might attract more readers to it!"

Thanks, Ken! Loved your review too. These characters will stay with me for a long time.


Glenn Sumi Julie wrote: "Yay! I saw your update where you said there was too much exposition, and I remembered I felt exactly the same way at first and ended up loving it. But I didn't say anything because I didn't want to..."

Julie: Wow, thanks! I knew I was going to stick with it because so many trusted GR friends really liked it. I'm glad I did. And what I didn't mention in my review was: right after finishing it, I went back to the beginning and reread sections to see how Marra introduced his characters. It's a book that, like all fine literature, rewards patience. I can't imagine juggling all that research and the multiple timelines, but Marra did it beautifully.


Renata Marra seems to be a little obsessed with Chechnya. This was very good, but The God of Love and Techno is even better. I was living in Moscow in 1994 when the first war started, and to read about it all these years later in fiction is a little strange. Hope he writes something else soon - he’s one of favorites.


Angela M Excellent review, Glenn. I’m guessing that you will really like The Tsar of Love and Techno too .


Barbara I loved this novel and it’s one of only a handful I’ve held on to. I now want to read it again.


Glenn Sumi @Dianne: Thanks! I’m definitely going to read Tsar. I find books of linked stories very satisfying. And It will be good to see how much range Marra has.


Glenn Sumi @Robin: Thanks! I’m glad I finally read this one. Heard so much about it. I also think it would make a very good movie. Glad to know the story collection is fine too. I’ve heard nothing but raves.


Conor Great review, Glenn. I agree with everything, including the specific peccadilloes you mention. Check out "The Tsar of Love and Techno" if you haven't read it! It's another peach.


Julie Glenn,
I totally agree with you about this being a "hugely ambitious novel," and I loved your well-written review, but Beowulf made more sense to me than this book.


Glenn Sumi @Renata: Thanks for the comment, especially interesting from your perspective of having lived in Russia in the 90s! I’m definitely reading Marta’s story collection and also look forward to what he writes next.


Glenn Sumi @Angela M: Thanks! I’m sure I will like The Tsar Of Love And Techno (Marra really has a way with titles, doesn’t he?). I love short stories, especially when some of them are linked.


Glenn Sumi @Barbara: Thanks for the comment. I understand your wanting to reread this book. When I finished, I went back and reread the opening chapters, to see how the author had set up the situations and characters. Really masterfully done (although it was a little hard to get into at first).


Glenn Sumi @Conor: I think it was your review that finally pushed me to read this, so thank you! And I will definitely check out Tsar soon.


Glenn Sumi @Julie: Haha. Beowulf - now there’s a page turner! I understand your comments, and for the first third to a half I wasn’t quite convinced either. I was thinking of mentioning in the review that I liked Anthony Doerr’s All The Light... a lot more (the books have a lot in common I think).


Julie Glenn,
I definitely preferred All the Light, but I went back and re-read my review of this one and was reminded that I did think the ending was worthy; it was just like working through a complicated labyrinth to get there! (Kinda like The Matrix--like, is it actually that complicated, or is it just boring??)


Melanie I love your review Glenn!


Glenn Sumi Julie wrote: "Glenn,
I definitely preferred All the Light, but I went back and re-read my review of this one and was reminded that I did think the ending was worthy; it was just like working through a complicate..."


Julie: Just read your review and I understand all your points! It took me a long time to get into the book, and I think it's because of the detached narration and the jumping around in time. It "clicked" later on, but it was a bit of a slog before then. And yes, the ending! So good. (Also: The Matrix? Did you ever watch the sequel? Yikes.)


Glenn Sumi Melanie wrote: "I love your review Glenn!"

Thanks, Melanie! Just read your review. And that ending GUTTED me. Simultaneously tear-inducing and humane/hopeful but also tragic.


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