Anthony Marra provides such a humming engine for his story, and such a surprisingly intricate path that even the squeamish will find themselves compelled to continue on the rough ride. Things happen in this novel … Everyone must always be inventive to survive, never more so than in their varied uses of hope and memory to recall both their own winding narratives and those who are gone. Hope and memory, after all, are the only things truly left in their control … Marra's true mastery, however, is most evident in his narrative structure. He casts his characters back and forth through time.
Marra’s timeline runs from 1994 to 2004, but the larger story is much, much deeper. 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 … The novel is peppered with these short detours into the pasts or futures of characters who momentarily cross paths with the principals. It’s one of Marra’s ways of holding the value of human wishes against their vanity. There’s a constant impulse to retrieve and affirm what was, though acts of remembrance are themselves evanescent … While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists...these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history … On one level, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set against the tangle of wars, occupations and insurgencies that have racked Chechnya since the early 1990s. It hews to the historical record...As such, Mr. Marra’s novel can be sickening reading … In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Mr. Marra introduces us to exuberant characters, only to shuffle them into the wings for chapters at a time. Tension is rarely allowed to build. The grease of human existence is kept from plausibly accumulating. I disliked the sensation that I was reading a feat of editing as much as a feat of writing. I admired this novel more than I warmed to it.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is densely imagined, and yet cinematic in the after-image … There are perhaps too many coincidences to be sustained. The novel also zigzags needlessly across time. Every other chapter unfolds in 1994 or 2004, and in those same chapters are flashbacks. War indeed ruptures time; in fact, Marra reminds that when Chechnya broke away it established its own time zone … There are many reasons to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena...but the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances.
The story, which takes place in Chechnya, moving back and forth in time over recent history, includes some tough scenes, such as descriptions of torture and amputation. There's a terrifying, Wild West lawlessness at work. But it's exactly that — and the brilliant writing — that kept me committed to that world and the people in it … You can almost feel his desire to pull loose ends together, and I don't blame him, for the material he's working with often lacks order and reason. But he really doesn't need to try so hard in those moments. The writing moves us forward, as do the characters, who to stay sane sometimes need to burrow into the past.
Marra takes us to a place that most Americans still could not point to on a map, to a conflict we have no fluency in, and in his sure hand, the whole of it comes completely to life … Characters' destinies are intertwined in many ways, which can be confusing and distracting if one gets too caught up in tracking the twists of fate. Fortunately, though the author has woven an intricate net, the pleasure of the book does not depend upon the reader's grasp of every knot – the sense of connectedness is as meaningful as the particulars of it.
The constellation of the title consists of six main characters, who each get a voice, and a score of minor actors who blaze briefly but brightly … Comparisons to Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, set in the Balkans, are inevitable. While Marra shares Obreht's belief in the power of story to temper suffering, he's more focused on exploring how the trauma of war bares a person's character, for better or worse. He makes even Ramzan, responsible for so many deaths, fully, recognizably one of us.
Though the chronology of the present covers five days in 2004, the novel ranges over a decade. It traces the lives and loves of its characters, capturing the family relationships and coincidental crossings of lives that will pivotally come together in the rescue of Havaa … The characters are given shape in life’s small moments — a cup of tea, a game of chess. Natasha, the golden one, may be ‘the only person in Volchansk who understood and envied Sonja for the wonder she was.’ These snippets of reality exist in a surround that side-steps fear, emphasizing the experience of humanity that transcends the boundaries of culture and politics.
Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us, into the intersecting lives and minds of its wretched people. Like Tolstoy's thistle, he tells us of little things that carry great significance: a chess set, a kinzhal knife, a portrait attached to a tree, a Makarov pistol. He slowly unfolds his story's past and present with a balanced sureness and a subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming … Although it's sometimes horrific in its painful telling, it's also beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital ‘human matter’ of life.
What moves A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is less Havaa’s fate than the unfolding stories of those who orbit her. These are types, yet Mr Marra has drawn them so particularly they transcend the stereotypes of the exile who returns, the failed local boy, the beautiful woman trafficked into prostitution. Each is portrayed in prose that is alternately tender and darkly comic … No one in this village is innocent; each has some moral flaw. Mr Marra refuses to judge. ‘In another life Ramzan’s weaknesses would have manifested no tragedy greater than a cheated chess victory,’ he writes. War may be hell; it is also a great crucible for character.
Anthony Marra takes a subject and a place a lot of us don’t know much about – war-ravaged Chechnya in 2004, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – and, with remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, he keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters … This novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted.
Marra’s vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant: religious and separatist battles have left the roadways studded with land mines, the buildings pockmarked with bullets and many residents disappeared and tortured. The characters Marra brings to this landscape, though, are thankfully lacking in pieties about the indomitability of the human spirit … He’s a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters’ fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer.