Even before finishing a book, I think of how I’m going to review it, of what I can say about it. Sometimes what I want to say comes naturally, but other times it’s not so easy. I especially find it difficult to write about books I liked. Reviewing books that I disliked for one reason or another is easy; but writing about books that I liked or that moved me is somewhat difficult for me.
This is true for Anthony Marra‘s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which is the second book I read this year. I thought this was a beautiful, poignant novel, but I can’t even begin to describe its beauty and power. It wouldn’t be enough to say that it is about the effects and implications of the First and Second Chechen Wars. Nor would it be enough to say that it is about human suffering and betrayal at the hands of enemies and friends alike. It wouldn’t be enough to say that it’s about how different people from different walks of life deal with the effects of war, and how they adapt to their losses and grief. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is about all that…but it’s about more than that.
It’s about war, grief, suffering, betrayal, hate, but it’s also about peace, love, friendship, and hope. It’s about family and friendship and the risks one is willing to make for the sake of both. It’s about overcoming insurmountable challenges in order to go on living day by day. It’s about finding strength in the company of others, about pride in ones abilities, and about helping those who are in need. It’s about having control over choices and actions, and the consequences of both; it’s about surviving without succumbing to pressure; it’s about integrity, regret, and honesty; it’s about freedom.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena describes the lives of different characters living in war-torn Chechnya between 1994 and 2004. It begins by introducing a man and a little girl from a small village who travel to the city to seek refuge and assistance from a bitter, but talented doctor. As the story unfolds, tales of other characters are introduced – residents of the small village, as well as residents of the city, and how their lives are surprisingly interconnected.
Someone once told me that it would be hard to choose another book after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and she’s right. Words may be enough to describe A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, but they are not enough to describe the emotions the novel can evoke. It’s a book that will make you laugh, but it will also make you cry and will make you question your faith in humanity. It is a book that is both tragic and uplifting; serious, and funny; sincere and sarcastic; predictable, yet unexpected. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a story about the horrors of war, but it’s also a feel-good story about the complexities of human nature; it’s a story about survival, and as the title implies, it’s a story about life.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013) – Anthony Marra
Hogarth; 397 pages
Personal rating: 4/5 – Reminds me a bit of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.