Book Review: ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra


Rating: 4 / 5

In the sleepy village of Eldar, Akhmed has tasked himself with Havaa’s safety, after he finds Havaa hiding in the forest, her father abruptly abducted by Russian soldiers and the house set on fire.  Knowing that the soldiers are looking for Havaa, he takes her to the only place he knows where she has a chance of survival, an abandoned hospital run by the only remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina.  

In a society where few women have jobs, much less careers, Sonja has broken the mold.  She has become a successful surgeon, but left the safety of London to return to Chechnya, hoping to find out what happened to her younger sister, Natasha.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the story of the Eldar villagers, the lengths they will go to help one another, and the capacity they have to inflict pain on one another.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beautiful and haunting, full of moments of joy and terror.  Akhmed is the first character readers meet, and like all the characters in the story, save Havaa, he is complex.  Though he was enrolled in medical school, he cannot stand the sight of blood, and has disappointed the people of Eldar, who had high hopes of him becoming a renowned doctor.  Instead, he returned to Eldar and quickly gained notoriety as one of the most incompetent physicians.  His ineptitude aside, however, he knows that his neighbor, Dokkar, will most likely never return, and it is up to him to save Dokkar’s daughter, Havaa.  He strikes a deal with Sonja, where Havaa is permitted to stay at the hospital, and in return, Akhmed will help Sonja with caring for the ill and injured.

Sonja grew up knowing that she could not compete with Natasha on looks, but she triumphed with respect to brains and academia.  In her quest to carve out her own niche, she left home to study medicine in London.  Since the war broke out and she lost contact with Natasha, she has regretted her decision to study in London, and has returned to Chechnya, hoping that Natasha will walk through the doors.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those books where I had to take a step back and mull over for a couple of days before I could appreciate the beauty and intricacy woven in the pages.  The story has great bones, and some scenes are written so vividly that it is nearly impossible to grasp human nature.  It is easy to get lost in the novel, to greedily keep turning the pages, peeling back the layers to see how the characters are intertwined.  I could not get enough of the backstory between the supporting cast; the conflict and years of silence between Eldar resident Ramzan and his father, the tension between Dokkar and Akhmed, and the reason why the village has turned its back on Ramzan.  The stories and the descriptions are breathtakingly beautiful.  Marra is finely attuned to the lengths that people will go to in the name of family, and the actions people are forced to either endure or engage in during war.

What I found difficult about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the delivery.  Most books that juggle different time periods usually keep it at two-the past and the present.  With A Constellation, however, the present is the five days since Akhmed rescued Havaa and took her to the hospital, and it is wrapped up in a decade of history.  It was challenging for me to keep the sequence of events straight.  The beginning of every chapter has a timeline, but that still wasn’t enough for me to keep the order of affairs, tortures, and secrets straight. Considering that nearly everyone absolutely loved this book, I’m pretty sure I’m probably the lone minority who thought that the delivery could have been a little sharper and clearer.  I was probably through 3/4 of the book before it really picked up for me and story lines started clicking.

The Bottom Line: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is filled with vivid imagery and emotion and it is easy to see Marra’s storytelling talent.  While the shifts in time are challenging, this is still very much a worthy read.

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