~post by Julie
I carried A Constellation of Vital Phenomena around for months. Someone first gave me an early copy back in October. She pressed it in my hands and said, “You MUST read this. It’s reminded me of The Tiger’s Wife, but somehow possibly even better, in some ways.” I put it on the top of my stack. Stacked other books on top of it. Why does it happen so often that these books I come to love, to champion and force into my fellow booksellers’ hands, sit so long on my table? You’d think I would have learned by now.
Before I read this book, what I knew about Chechnya amounted to scanned headlines, NPR news blurbs, and vague images I recalled from listening to reports about violence in 2003. Marra has opened up the region for me, and he’s done it in the way that makes novels so vital to our understanding of the world; through searing, enduring characters.
Akhmed, Sonja, Dokka, Havaa, Khassan, Ramzan, Ula. Their histories overlap and intertwine in such delicate, indelible, life-altering moments. If I sat here and described the various knots Marra used to tie them to to one another, it might sound unbelievable. Too convenient. Which is part of why I found this book brilliant. The intricate character web only works so well because of Marra’s thorough, realistic character development. He has this way of moving inside a character’s whole history and future in a matter of mere sentences. One moment you’re standing with Akhmed feeling the oil in his hair and the intimidation of standing before a highly trained doctor in a bombed-out hospital, and in the next paragraph you’re behind the doctor’s dried out eyes and inside her exhausted heart, walking with her across a crater that used to be her city searching for her sister who went missing after the first and then the second war.
Through all the finely wrought pain and devastation rendered in this book, what made it a deeply affecting piece of art for me is the thread of hope twisting through its core. Marra accomplishes a lot by manipulating time, not only by moving back and forth across a ten year chronology to give us background, but also by glimpsing a character’s future a few sentences at a time. The patient having his leg amputated on the operating table, you may learn, will be a successful architect ten years from that moment. It thrilled me the first time Marra did this and I continued to find it uplifting as I read through the book. There is life beyond all this, something will be rebuilt, this is not the end. Somewhere, sometimes even in the center of what is gut-wrenching and ugly and unbearable, there can be a deep and heavy joy.
I cried through the last twenty or so pages of this novel. It affected me. These characters are with me. You’re going to read a lot of positive reviews about this book in the coming days. Plenty of them are out there already. Ann Patchett loved it. Meg Wolitzer raved about it for NPR. It impressed The Rumpus. Believe them all. Novels like this don’t happen every season, they certainly don’t happen every year. This book is worth your time.
Copies of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are available in-store and via bookpeople.com.