A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra

Genre: Fiction (2000s / 1990s / Russia / Chechnya / Secret Police / Emergency Room / Sex Trafficking / Doctors / Siblings)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hogarth (5/7/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Six lives overlap, collide, and crash over a span of a decade, distilled down into five days in war-torn Chechnya.

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so sad, so evocative, so bittersweet!

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Dubois, Valerie Laken

First line: On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- I suspect this book will be getting a good deal of praise in the coming months.

Why did I get this book?: If it's from Hogarth, I'm reading it.

Review: I'm a total Hogarth fangirl now, having first fallen in love with I Am Forbidden and then The Headmaster's Wager.

Set in a small town in the Chechan Republic, the novel takes place over five days, shifting from 'present' -- 2004 -- back to 1994.  (The time jumps are beautiful noted at the start of each chapter with this timeline, the year in question bolded.)

The five days in question, the frame of the book, refer to the time spent at a nearly abandoned hospital by Akhmed, an incompetent village doctor, and Havaa, the 8-year old daughter of his neighbor, orphaned after Federal police seized her father and burned her house. Desperate to save her, Akhmed drags her to the city hospital (at one point in the book, he realizes it is the first life he's saved as a doctor).

There they meet Sonja and her crazy nurse. Sonja, paralysed with guilt and fear over her sister Natasha, missing again after being a victim of sex trafficking, works automaton-like numbness at the hospital, amputating limbs with quick practice and dealing with gangsters to resupply the hospital.

Every night, Akhmed returns home to care for his invalid wife, living in fear of his neighbor Ramzan, who is a snitch for the police (Ramzan is the reason Havaa and her father were turned in to the police) while nurturing a friendship with Khassan, Ramzan's historian father who has taken to ignoring his son as punishment for his betrayals.

Chechnya, a region in Russia perhaps only vaguely familiar to Americans in the last decade, is now increasingly familiar due to the Boston Marathon bombings. I will admit to some -- I don't know how to describe it -- some shaky unease reading about Chechan landmines and amputations when I've been reading about bombs and amputations here.

Marra's writing is gorgeous, not quite poetry, not simple statement, and as a result, whatever he articulates, be it a broken heart or severed limb, reads achingly real. (Which isn't to say it's all lofty philosophy: there are some literally stomach-turning, had-to-put-the-book-down-and-walk-away graphic or grotesque moments, like the aforementioned amputation scene.)  That said, I couldn't stop reading -- or wanting to read -- this book, and Marra's inclusion of such violence emphasizes the unstable destruction of the area, the unceasing  horror these characters live with.

Much like the old medical text that inspired the title, the characters are all points on a constellation, connected and separate.  I finished this book unwilling to start another, still working at the story in my mind.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/24.

Comments

  1. I recently finished this book as well. IT BLEW MY MIND. Absolutely fantastic :)

    The Headmaster's Wager was one of my very favorites from 2012. Great minds...

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    1. Right?? This is one of those book hangover books -- it sticks with me, I don't want to pick up another book, I just want to stay -- gah, so good. So far, I haven't hit one Hogarth book I haven't loved.

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  2. I am about 60 pages into this one and so far, I am enjoying it. The lush prose grabbed me early only. Hope it holds.

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  3. I keep reading only positive things about this book - I'm excited to read it. I love how you are still thinking about this book - I just love when that happens :)

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    1. I hope you stop by when you do read it -- it's wonderful. I really am so reluctant to pick up another book!

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  4. Wow, this one sounds fantastic. Will definitely be checking this one out. Fabulous review!!

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    1. Thank you, Bonnie! It was so good -- sad, but not so agonizing you don't wan to continue. It was just marvelous!

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  5. I've never read a Hogarth book but the fact that you're a fangirl makes me want to.

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    1. They put out some of the best stuff -- literary fiction that is accessible, I think -- really gutting stuff, in the best way.

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  6. Yes, it took me a long time for it to get out of my head! In fact, it's still there! :--)

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    1. I suspect I won't shake this one!

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  7. I read this a few months ago and knew right away it would secure a spot as one of my favorite books of the year. You're so right about not feeling ready to pick up another book, this definitely had that impact. And Hogarth has been incredible recently - I totally trust what they are putting out!

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    1. Shannon -- even now, just a day later, I'm growing to love it more -- it may make my top 10. I've got three more Hogarths waiting for me -- can't wait to dig in.

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  8. I've read so many reviews and comments praising this book and have seen it in so many best-of lists that I'm anxious to read it. I'm so glad you're offering it, and I hope I win. :-)

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    1. Fingers crossed! ;) It's worth the wait, that's for sure!

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  9. I'm so glad to hear you liked this. I have to read it soon. I have a galley but haven't gotten to it yet. Like you I'm a Hogarth fangirl but I haven't read either of the two you have, though both interest me, especially The Headmaster's Wager. Great review!

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    1. Oh, Marie, would love to know what you think of I Am Forbidden -- it's about the Satmar sect and is just devastating. I still think of it often.

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  10. I have heard good things about this book- sounds interesting!

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  11. Audra i just finished it and i agree with all you have said. Somehow though it left me strangely cold. There seemed to me difficulty in conveying true emotion and it almost read like a reportage of war. Having said that i consider this book to be a must read. I am now reading questions of travel by michelle de kretser and 140 pages in consider it to be best book i have read in several months. I would love for you to read it so i can hear your opinion. Heather curran

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    1. Heather -- your comments about the reportage style resonate with me -- I was surprised to read in Marra's acknowledgements about how much war reporter memoir he used in his research (and the way it sounded like he took episodes from those books to use in this one!)

      Thanks so much for the rec -- added it to the queue and just requested it from the library (sadly, already a wait for it!) -- I hadn't heard of it but it sounds wonderful, and your ringing endorsement only makes it more appealing!

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  12. I started reading this and stopped, I'm not sure why as it wasn't because I didn't like it. The Uk cover is completely different but it made me look at the book in the first place, it's a really striking design.

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    1. Ellie -- that happens to me too -- I just 'forget' to pick up a book again, even though I liked it while reading it! And you're right -- the UK cover is marvelous -- captures a whole different feel of the novel. I actually might prefer it to the US cover!

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  13. It sounds difficult to read, but good all the same. Had an "ah ha" moment when I saw the cover of Headmaster's - I see why you're a fangirl :)

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  14. I have read a number of positive reviews about this book and am definitely interested in reading it. I agree with your comment though about reading it now given the Marathon bombings and the all the aftermath.

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  15. This seems like a book that requires a "recovery period" once you read the last page. I hope your next read is just as good!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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  16. "Marra's writing is gorgeous, not quite poetry, not simple statement, and as a result, whatever he articulates, be it a broken heart or severed limb, reads achingly real."
    Oh, yes! Perfect description...achingly real...you feel it to your core all the way to the end.
    Enjoyed your review!

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