Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

 photo 3cf84e8f-e500-4b7a-acc7-d2fd53678186_zps118a71cd.jpg A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is depressing darkness filled with war-torn horrors and punctuated by bright moments of fragile tenderness. Individual points of light converge to create a story—to convey connected lives. To view a constellation is to see each star’s past during the present. So, too, is it with Anthony Marra’s characters—each one composes a story that spans generations.

The story follows a group of neighbors in a modern Chechyan village. The current government abducts a father, Dokka, who manages to hide his young daughter, Havaa, before their house burns. A neighbor and friend, Akhmed, finds her in the woods and shelters her first in his house and then in a nearby hospital, where he convinces the chief, Sonja (pronounced Sohn-yah), to not only provide him with a job but also protect the girl without him. What follows is five days of memories, secrets, and a constant debate between life and death.

Marra’s writing is beautiful and filled with lyrical phrases, intricate details, and crisp narration that hook into readers and keep them wondering until the last page. It is also harsh, horrific, and unrelenting in its depictions of a stark war-torn village that immediately settles readers into a fear-filled landscape. Despite this, Marra pays close attention to intimate, delicate additions and profound descriptions. He is adept at switching the direction of analogies, especially when fixated upon light; his best and most poetic lines contain light. For example, instead of a house disappearing into ash or smoke or being razed to the ground, “[Akhmed] watched the house he had helped build disappear into light” (6). Marra writes,

…a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken [Akhmed] months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky… There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn’t distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur’an and telephone dictionary returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke. (4)

Perhaps this use of light is a counterbalance to an otherwise dark story and setting. Marra mentions moonlight that lies as a flimsy bed sheet, and a cigarette lighter’s droplet of flame. Put poetry in light, and anything can seem bearable: daily gradual starvation, the occasional bombing raids and shootings, an informant providing names of innocent people just to fulfill a grudge, the daily possibility of someone triggering a landmine, the constant fear, and the absence of innocence from childhood. He writes:

As children Sonja and Natasha played hide-and-seek in the dust-thick catacombs of the apartment cellar. Light streamed through the high windows in long diagonals. On the floor, each semicircle was a pool of lava, and light-caught dust motes were the remains of children who had stumbled into those incandescent rays. (187)

However, the strong writing seems to dissipate as the story progresses, and the amount of shining phrases diminish with each chapter. It is as if Marra used the first chapter to dazzle readers, who will then continue to read to discover what’s happening and why.

Marra also has particular aptitude for weaving time. In the book, readers learn about Chechnya’s militaristic history as well as the characters’ personal experiences during the span of five days. The book is separated into “day” sections, and chapters contain events specific to a designated year. But they also contain references to past and future years and scenes—circumstances that readers have already and will eventually encounter. All Chechen life is happening “now;” time within time within time.

To follow these temporal jumps, Marra utilizes both tight third-person limited and omniscient narration. He follows a handful of characters, but eventually wanders to different people’s perspectives in order to provide an added bit of information, just for the readers’ sakes. It is as if Marra inserted commentary, wherein the narrator steps in to break the fourth wall and tell readers information that may not, in the end, be pertinent to the story. Most of the information jumps occur in chapters set in the past, as if they are explored more like memories. This is one of the few inconsistencies in the book, when the author’s desire to inform readers interrupts characterization and realistic possibility. For example, he follows a character, Khassan, who encounters a young, scared soldier who saves him and asks him to post a letter to the soldier’s grandparents. Marra writes:

‘You must survive,’ the blond-haired conscript said. ‘You must survive and tell my grandparents. Tell them their grandson is not like the other soldiers. Tell them that they raised him well, that he is trying so hard to stay the boy they raised.’ Khassan would write a letter to the conscript’s grandparents, but without access to a functional postal system, it would remain in his drawer for seventeen months, until the autumn morning when a Russian woman knocked on his door, asking if he had seen her son…. Khassan wouldn’t be able to help her, but he would ask her to post his letter from Russia. He wouldn’t know that in Novosibirsk the grandparents of the blond-haired conscript would receive his letter eight days after they received word of their grandson’s death and would read it is a eulogy at his funeral. (144-145)

Readers don’t need to know this information, except for a little reassurance that not all soldiers and rebels are heartless murderers and thieves, and that even in midst of danger, some people actually are inherently good. But occasional peeks into the future like this one seem out of place during consistent third-person limited narration. They appear more as confusing slips in craft that may leave readers wondering, “Wait, what was that? He could s/he know that? Why is this important?”

Marra often references the future beyond ten years—a future when people have paying jobs, don’t live in fear, and can work toward rebuilding a community by following dreams. But judging by the novel’s timeline, ten years is now. Is Chechnya rebuilt as promising as Marra writes? Are all the novel’s horrors behind that country? Time will tell whether this novel will be referenced in English classes or assigned as suggested reading for history courses, and whether history repeats itself, thus making this story relevant in any era. But one thing’s certain: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will leave readers aware of the outside world, and thankful for what they have.

Anthony Marra is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s won a Pushcart Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Prairie Lights Fiction Prize and first place in the Atlantic’s emerging writers’ contest and in Narrative’s short story contest.

Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose