“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra

“A Constellation of  Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra (2013) – 382 pages


A lot of writers make the following mistake.  When they depict characters in sad and desperate situations, these characters lose their personalities.  The people in the story become stilted and cheerless due to the pressure of events.  But even in the worst of circumstances, unless one is directly affected, his or her essential spirit will shine through.  “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is one of the more humorous novels I’ve read, yet there are few situations that are as wretched as that of Chechnya in the years portrayed in the novel, 1996-2004.  Humor, even black humor, is one of our basic coping mechanisms.



Who would have guessed that one of the finer novels released in the United States in recent years would be about the wars in Chechnya?  “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is a quite moving story; it will make the readers laugh through their tears.  The novel is about people living and dying in the brutal modern world.

First here is a little background on Chechnya.  Chechnya is a fairly small landlocked country east of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian Sea.  Islam is the predominant religion in Chechnya.  Formerly there was a fairly significant Russian Orthodox population which has mainly left the country as a result of the wars.  When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Chechens fought and won their independence from Russia in a war.  The country did quite well for a while, mainly due to the huge oil resources under their land.  However in October, 1999, Russia started the Second Chechen War to regain control of the country.

Much of the “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” story takes place at a bombed-out hospital in the Chechen town of Volchansk.  The hospital used to have a staff of 500 but it now is down to a staff of three including Sonja who is the only doctor.  One whole side of the hospital is missing, bombed during the war.  Yet the hospital still gets quite a few patients due to all the land mines in the area.

The novel mentions Leo Tolstoy a few times.  Tolstoy wrote a novel, “Hadji Murad”, which takes place in Chechnya.  I would guess that Anthony Marra is going for the same emotional sweep in his writing as Tolstoy.

In a few scenes “Constellation” depicts the torture of Chechens by the Russians.  These scenes are so brutal you can well understand why civilized countries outlawed the use of torture to achieve their goals.

The novel certainly takes the pro-Chechen side in the war, although Wikipedia does show that both sides committed atrocities.  The novel does point out that some of the Muslims, especially those in the Wahhabi movement, wanted to turn the war against Russia into a holy war and really didn’t care about Chechen independence.

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” shifts the point of view between each of the seven main characters, and each of their stories is gripping emotionally. Each of the main characters must deal with their own situation, and the stories are fascinating.  I unsuccessfully tried to find out more about Anthony Marra’s background to figure out his profound interest in Chechnya.  I suspect that Leo Tolstoy would praise this novel.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds great. I know you don’t love just anything.

    Hey, I’ll have to read “Hadji Murad.” I just read about that somewhere: it’s the last book by Tolstoy Pevear and Volokhonsky translate.


  2. Hi Kat,
    Yes, I’ve been looking for Hadji Murad too, the version translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I think it was published in a book of several short Tolstoy novels. I read Tolstoy’s two epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace about twenty years ago when I was reading nearly all 19th century Russian writers. Tolstoy is one of the greats.


  3. This heartbreaking story of a war torn area of the world reminds us that however annoyed we get with our own lives, we’re far better off. I’d never have read about this tragic place and time if the writing had been less brilliant. It held me while I learned some hard lessons.Several years ago I reviewed novel excerpts in the Amazon Shorts Writing Contest and one author’s writing impressed me so much I saved part of his entry and his name. With talent like that, I was sure he was headed for great things. I ran across the entry recently and searched to see if he’d been published yet. What did I find but this book due to be released soon. I was delighted to find it on Vine and couldn’t wait to read it.Sure enough the writing is stunning and it kept me reading even though the story of the desperation of those living through these wars wrenches one’s soul. The characters accept the horror of their lives and put one foot in front of the other with utter futility and yet rays of hope leak through the crumbling walls. While there is not much bright about what happens, the message that comes out at the end is that life goes on and prevails. It’s a story of hope and survival against all odds. The characters leave a legacy that reinforces one’s belief in the strength of the human spirit.I expected great things from this author and I wasn’t disappointed. He has a real gift.


    • Hi Colin R. Carpenter,
      Thank you for your enlightening comments, and I could not have said it better myself. Anthony Marra is definitely a writer on his way up.


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