Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

Title:  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena:  A Novel
Author:  Anthony Marra
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2013. 400 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because the cover and title looked intriguing.

Favorite Quote:  "There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be."

A medical dictionary defines life as "a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

According to the author, this definition led to the title for this book. A six pointed definition of life leads to a six perspective story of the Chechan Wars. As such, it is not as much a story of war but of the choices people make to survive. As one character says, "War is unnatural ... It causes people to act unnaturally."

Haava is the young girl who is born into the war and who has seen her mother die, her father taken away, and her home destroyed because of the war. Akhmed is the neighbor and friend who attempts to save Haava. Sonja is the doctor who leaves her life in London to return to Chechnya to look for her sister and now runs a hospital. Natasha is Sonja's sister, who was left behind when Sonja left for London and who is now missing. Ramzan is a young man from Haava's village who has turned on his friends and neighbors and is now an informant. Khassan is Ramzan's father caught between the love for his son and his dislike of the path his son has chosen.

It took me a while to get into this book perhaps because the main story occurs over five days but the book weaves back and forth over a decade to provide the back story and perhaps because Chechnya is not a part of the world that I know. As such, the book took longer to engage me. However, once it did, I could not stop reading.

The weaving timeline becomes like lines connecting the dots of a constellation. Each revelation makes another part of the story clear, and gradually, an entire connected image emerges. The final picture is filled with sadness and horror of war but also ultimately with survival and love. A beautiful debut novel.

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