Review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This was a whirlwind of a book. Once caught up in it, this novel will breathlessly spin you around and around. I feel that to hold this novel steady, I would need to read it twice, a statement which for me is high praise. Be warned that this review is based on only one read and therefore is only half accurate.

This is the story of several characters whose lives are intertwined in Chechnya between the years 1994 and 2004. The backdrop is the two wars that ravage the area during these years. Characters deal with the normal ups and downs of friendships and relationships, loves and betrayals, all while trapped between two dangerous armies.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel concerns the omniscient narrator. For those who forgot what this is from junior high English class, there’s no character telling the story, rather, it’s just being told to us by a god-like narrator. Sure, this happens in roughly half of all stories, so why should I bring it up in a review? Because this narrator seems to also be a psychic with an obsession for numbers. For example, on page 305, the narrator tells us that one very minor character will one day have eight hundred and eighty-two cats, “all named for his mother, though he would never know that exact figure.” Any object or character can be suddenly alighted upon with these OCD visions. This gives the book a rare quality, a lightness of distance, putting everything in perspective with such a breadth of information.

The language is haunting and beautiful. I almost couldn’t highlight anything because I wanted to highlight everything. My example is early on, page 40: “His love, pity, and revulsion each claimed her, each occupied and was driven from her, and even now, as he sealed a postage stamp-sized square, he was afraid that in moments, when he broke away, his disgust would overwhelm the imprint of his lips.” This language is poetical without being difficult to read, with themes like war and fear woven into the descriptions.

Torture scenes do occur, and they can be a bit gruesome, although I’ve read more worse in other books. This history of the place can also prove a challenge. As a backdrop, it’s hard to keep up with at times. I’m guessing not too many readers out there have much knowledge of Chechnya history. And with the stories hopping back and forth during those ten years, following the timelines can be frustrating. With some slow, mindful reading, though, it’s worth figuring out how the history intertwines with the story, and never does the book feel like a history textbook.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. This is not a beach read, though, so be prepared to dedicate some quiet hours.

Click here to see my discussion questions.

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