Top Shelf: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Reviewed by: Liz Wyckoff, Events Host & Blogger
Even before I finished reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I knew that I loved it. But in the weeks since I’ve finished the novel, I’ve noticed an amazing thing: everyone who has read it has loved it. Chris from BookPeople, who’s into crime novels and mysteries, loves it. Julie from Bookpeople, who’s into literary fiction, loves it. Reviewers for The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, IndieBound, The Rumpus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and many, many more—they all LOVED it. And while I want to praise so many specific parts of Anthony Marra’s book—the compelling characters and intriguing plot lines and exquisite prose—I think his greatest accomplishment is simply the creation of a book that appeals to so many people, that is so universally good.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place primarily in a small town in Chechnya over the course of six days in 2004, but the larger narrative slides gracefully across a timeline stretching back to 1994. Marra uses this technique to great advantage in the novel, creating suspense and presenting mysteries to his readers. Why is Dokka missing all ten of his fingers? How did Ramzan become an informant who turns his childhood friends over to the authorities? Where has Sonja’s sister Natasha been all these years, and what happened to her when she left Chechnya? Marra expertly poses these questions and slowly reveals the answers, which are often surprising, throughout the novel. He also occasionally allows the 3rd-person narration to leap forward in time, providing magical glimpses of characters’ futures, which even they cannot foresee.
Marra, who is American-born, has lived in Eastern Europe and is a scholar of Chechen literary and political history. However, in developing such vivid, complex characters, he strikes a perfect balance between providing too much and too little political history in the novel. One character in the book, an old man named Khassan, has been writing a dense tome called Origins of Chechen Civilization, which exceeds 3,000 pages; yet, while Marra’s book includes a great deal of historical facts, it is first and foremost a compelling story about characters. Characters falling in love, characters dealing with the illnesses, deaths, and betrayals of their loved ones, and characters considering the life choices that have led them down certain paths and not others, the events have influenced them to become one type of person and not another.
So yes, you should pick up this book if you want to learn a little more about Chechnya—its geography, its people, and its political unrest. You should pick up this book if you want to get lost in the lives of at least eight or nine fascinating, flawed, and relatable characters. And you should certainly pick up this book if you want to marvel at a promising young novelist’s beautifully rendered prose. I hope you pick it up, read it, and recommend it to everyone you know.
Signed copies of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com, while supplies last.