Diane's Reviews > A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
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it was amazing
bookshelves: chechnya, gorgeous-prose, modern-fiction, russia, war, favorites

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 woods to hide, which is why the soldiers didn't find her. The girl's mother is dead and she has no one else. A neighbor, Akhmed, helps Havaa escape to a nearby town and convinces a doctor, Sonja, to look after her. Soon our cast of characters will expand and we will meet Akhmed's wife, Havaa's father, Sonja's sister, and other residents in the village of Eldar, each of them with a story to tell.

One of my favorite characters was Sonja, a tough doctor who left Chechnya to attend medical school in London, but she returned to her war-torn country to try and help her sister, Natasha, who later disappeared:

"Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha's sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared. She walked alone down the school corridors, head sternly bent toward the stack of books in her arms ... Sonja had more academic journal subscriptions than friends. She could explain advanced calculus to her fifth-form algebra teacher but couldn't tell a joke to a boy at lunch. Even in the summer months, she had the complexion of someone who spent too much time in a cellar. Everyone knew Sonja was destined for great things, but no one knew what to do with her until then."

Another character I loved was Akhmed, a man who studied to be a doctor but who would rather have been an artist. He jokes that he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but he still manages to help his patients and their families, sometimes by drawing portraits of those who have been killed or taken by the feds.

Anthony Marra's writing is beautiful, with stunning sentences that made me pause and reread them. If I hadn't been reading a library book I would have underlined innumerable paragraphs. (The page-long sentence on p. 139 was so emotional and breathtaking that I actually gasped.) Each chapter opens with a timeline, pinpointing a year between 1994 and 2004, and the flashbacks illuminate what happened to our characters during the war. While the chapter focuses on one character's perspective, the stories ebb and flow together like overlapping melodies.

This is a novel whose plotting and gracefulness I admired so much that as soon as I had finished it, I immediately wanted to start over and read it again. What details! What connections! This is the kind of novel I love to read -- one that is complex and meaningful and full of humanity and life and I wish I could give a copy to every bookish friend I know. Ann Patchett, who is one of my favorite writers, told The New York Times that this was her favorite book she's read this year. Agreed.

Note: If you're wondering what the title means, it is taken from a definition in a medical dictionary: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena -- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."
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Reading Progress

May 3, 2013 – Shelved
November 16, 2013 – Started Reading
November 16, 2013 –
page 4
1.04% "Just started and I already really like this book. The prose is gorgeous."
November 19, 2013 –
page 38
9.9% "This novel is so good that I can already tell it's going to be one of my favorites this year."
November 24, 2013 –
page 100
26.04% ""There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be.""
November 25, 2013 –
page 139
36.2% "There is an extraordinary page-long sentence here that is so haunting and beautiful I had to catch my breath. And then I read it again. Amazing."
November 25, 2013 –
page 157
40.89% "Having recently read "The Book Thief" and hated it, I realized that Marra's book is everything that Book Thief isn't. Both books revolve around a war in Eastern Europe and involve hiding refugees. But where Book Thief has terrible writing, storytelling and thin characters, Marra's has gorgeous prose, rich characters and incredible storytelling. "Constellation" is a 5-star book."
November 26, 2013 –
page 229
59.64% "War is hell."
November 26, 2013 –
page 229
59.64% "War is hell."
November 27, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-35 of 35 (35 new)

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message 1: by Samadrita (new) - added it

Samadrita I heard really good things about this one from readers whose judgement I trust. Will look forward to your review.


Julie Christine I'm waiting impatiently for our library to get a print copy of this; electronic version only available, so far. Small towns, sigh...


Diane Julie, you should be able to request a copy through interlibrary loan. Have you asked a librarian?


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Julie, you should be able to request a copy through interlibrary loan. Have you asked a librarian?"

Yes, of course- I make ILL requests frequently. :) But even this can be limited. I live on a somewhat remote peninsula of a very rural county. I have submitted a purchase request and suggested this for a book club kit. I'm a little surprised-usually the library is quick to grab books like these- but for whatever reason, no print copy this time around.


Melanie Absolutely, my favorite book this year too. :)


Diane Julie, that is indeed worth an ARGH. I'm sorry. If I could, I would send you a copy from my library system. :)


Jessica Jeffers This book is phenomenal. I was so lucky to get an early copy from NetGalley -- my library in a relatively large suburban county still doesn't have it, either.


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Julie, that is indeed worth an ARGH. I'm sorry. If I could, I would send you a copy from my library system. :)"

Awww- thank you! I'll find one somewhere, someday!! :)


Suzanne Just a phenomenal read. I bought the Kindle edition, but wish that I had the hard copy.


Julie Christine Aaaannnd, I'm first in line for our library's on-order copy :)


Cheryl Oh this looks like a great one, Can't wait to see your thoughts.


message 12: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I actually found a copy of this book in my library sale room. So I have a virtually new paperback copy for only 50 cents. This review only heightens my anticipation. Thanks for a great review.


Priti Lovely review Diane, I must get hold of a copy :)


message 14: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Villines This is a novel whose plotting and gracefulness... I can see why Ann Patchett would like this.

I have not yet read a novel that was as intricately constructed with words and with language as was Bel Canto.


message 15: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Yes, this sounds a must.

Did you feel you learnt a lot about the experiences of the Checken people at this time? Was the book well grounded in their situation, or rather independent from it?


Diane Daniel, yes, several aspects of this book reminded me of Bel Canto, which I LOVED. If you liked the writing style of Bel Canto, you will like Marra's book. Fun trivia: Both Patchett and Marra studied at the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop.


message 17: by Samadrita (new) - added it

Samadrita Excellent review of what seems like an excellent book. Now I must read this.


Diane Sue, I envy your 50-cent copy! I think I will buy a trade paperback when it is released in a few months.


Diane Samadrita, thank you. I think you will like this book.


Diane Priti, if I could, I would buy copies for all of my lovely friends here on Goodreads!


message 21: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Sounds intriguing…thanks for the tempting review!


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

Excellent review, Diane! You've really got me in a state of suspense over the page-long sentence. Sounds wonderful.


Michael You make a great pitch. For an endorsement, you can't get better than "as soon as I had finished it, I immediately wanted to start over and read it again." My rural library doesn't have it, so I will have to do an interlibrary loan request.


Cheryl Great review, Diane. Stunning how the title seems to define the book (based on your review). I can't wait to read this one.


Diane Shelley, I didn't realize it was one sentence until I reached the end, and the story Marra told in that sentence was heartbreaking enough, but it was written so gracefully I couldn't believe it and had to read it again to be sure.


message 26: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Many of us will pick up this book because of your captivating review, Diane. This is the power of gr in action!


message 27: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Delightful and thrilling review Diane! I loved the additional info on the tittle, you make this of this novel such a tempting must-read!


message 28: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Beautiful and persuasive review.


message 29: by Arah-Lynda (new) - added it

Arah-Lynda I loved Bel Canto and this fabulous review. Definitely going on my TBR. Thank you.


message 30: by Joan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joan Page 139, OMG! I did the same thing!


Roberta I agree with you 100% - If I hadn't been reading a library book I would have underlined innumerable paragraphs.


Barbara Rhine Here is an example of one of Marra's "stunning sentences," as you put it: (re Akhmed's losing his wife gradually, by hairs falling on her sheets, crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind her headboard, a dark shape dissolving in soap: "As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what is no longer there." (p. 63)


message 33: by Numnum (new) - added it

Numnum AlQassab Would you mind it if I used the note about what the title means for my Instagram caption?


Steve I somehow missed this superb review at the time you wrote it. Fortunately, it's like a fine wine -- improving with age and leaving us thirsting for more.


Kelli I love this review. One of my favorite books ever!


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