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on 26 January 2014
The book begins with a man named Akmed fleeing from his village in war torn Chechnya in the company of a young girl, his best friends daughter, her father having been taken captive and transported to what the author refers to as the Landfill. This somewhat ominous name conjures up images of mass graves, but as the book progresses we learn that it is in fact an interrogation camp, to which most of the characters in this book have been at some point.

Akmed takes the girl to a nearby hospital, entrusting her to the care of a female surgeon named Sonja. Akmed strikes a deal with Sonja that in return for the girls safety, he will work at the hospital, where he is soon assisting with amputations, among other things. As the story of these three characters unfolds, we learn of the interconnecting threads that link them together.

For a first novel (at least first published novel), this is an extraordinary piece of work that grips the imagination and will leave the reader pondering as to the nature of war, life and death for many days.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 November 2013
Set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, and moving back and forth through history and the lives of the main characters, Anthony Marra's brilliant debut novel focuses on the threats to the life of an eight-year-old child, the daughter of a man seized and forcibly "disappeared," and those who are determined to protect her, even at the cost of their own lives. In 2004, Haava, around whom the action revolves, is ordered by Dokka, her father, to run with her suitcase of "souvenirs" into the woods and hide, as soon as he sees soldiers coming toward their house. The house and all its contents are then burned by soldiers, and Dokka is taken and "disappeared."

Rescued from the woods by Akhmed, a neighbor and failed physician (who would rather be an artist), Haava leaves the village of Eldar that night with Akhmed, hoping to reach the hospital in Volchansk, miles away. There Akhmed hopes to persuade Sonja, a doctor he has heard of, to care for Haava. Though Akhmed had planned to return home to his sick wife, Sonja learns that he is a physician, and though he finished at the bottom of his class, she makes a deal with him that she will let Haava stay with her if he will work in the hospital - all the other physicians have fled. Soon Akhmed is amputating limbs and caring for the dying. Sonja, the doctor, recently returned to Chechnya, desperate to find her missing sister Natasha.

Gradually, the reader comes to know almost a dozen characters so well drawn that it is impossible not to care about them. Stoic to the point of coldness, at times, these are the survivors of two grisly wars, the First and Second Chechen wars between Russia and rebels from Chechnya, originally a war by rebels for independence from Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but now a war with religious overtones for the rebels, and desperation for the Russians who need the resources - and oil pipeline - through Chechnya. People are starving, cold, and without any resources of their own.

It is through the characters that the book achieves almost epic status in its depiction of life in Chechnya and its past history. The novel's opening suggests this will be a story of parents and children and the sacrifices they are willing to make for each other, but that is only the introduction to many, much broader themes. The flashbacks each of the characters makes to a past life show the importance of memory as a way of understanding and/or making peace with the reality of the present. As the various characters react differently to their memories and their desires to be remembered by others, they remind us of the effects of guilt and innocence in determining our own desires to remain alive in the memories of others. For all the characters, however, the idea of what is right connects with the theme of what they are willing or not willing to do to ensure their own survival during times of war, and how effective they may be in accepting their sometimes selfish actions, both in the short-term and in terms of the memories others may have of them after their deaths. A memorable novel of war and peace.
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on 26 May 2013
There are debut novelists and then may be after reading him I can safely say that there is Anthony Marra. This is after reading his book, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and the fact that I could not stop sighing and being spectacularly amazed by most of his writing as the pages were turned. The writing does not seem as though it belongs to a debut writer or maybe I am just underestimating debut writers, but this one is sure to look out for. For one, no one or maybe very few people would have heard of the Chechen wars before reading this book. It was certainly an eye-opener for me and I can only thank Anthony enough for introducing me to this side of the world as well.

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is not going to be an easy read. It is not even a happy read as far as I am concerned. It has its moments of happiness and then it gets quite dreary. What does one expect of a novel told in the time of war and unrest? Well, for most things, one expects humanity and Marra delivers like a charm with reference to that expectation, thereby not only fulfilling but also surpassing it.

The book passes through or rather is told through a decade - from 1996 to 2004 and speaks of lives that were embroiled during the Chechen War, with the Russian History but of course making an appearance time and again in the book. The history of Chechnya is long and often confusing. Anthony Marra on the other hand, does not give us complete details of the land. Instead he chooses to talk about ordinary lives and the impact of ethnic strife on them and how their lives change beyond recognition. This worked with me as a reader on most levels. I guess all readers want to know more of the humane side of the story than anything else and Marra most certainly delivers on that one.

In this hard-hitting novel, Anthony takes us back and forth in the lives of the major characters, surrounded by the secondary characters that are equally integral to the plot and structure. There is Akhmed, an incompetent doctor with a big heart and an invalid wife, Sonja, a surgeon who labours each and every day at a bombed hospital and living with her own demons, and Havaa an eight-year old girl who has lost her family and is now about to start a new life. Centered around these are the other characters that make up the entire concept of Six Degrees of Separation that runs strongly throughout the book.

The cycle of life is seen through the book - birth, changes, adaptation, movement, growth and sometimes death is what holds the book strong. Marra's writing is surreal and often had me wonder: Where did the stories come from? What is the deal with the plot? The title in itself is intriguing and as you move through the novel, you understand its importance. The novel is intense and deep and yet the moments of compassion are plenty that take you by surprise. After all, sometimes all one needs is compassion to get one through in times of uncertainty and a war-torn land and a heart that needs much more. The emotional highs are plenty and that is precisely why I was urging everyone to read this book. It may be dark and depressing in places, but for me, it filled my heart with joy in most places. A must read.
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on 1 June 2014
This is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully rendered novel. The context of war ravaged Chechnya, the atrocities of the Russian army, the conflict this brutalisation engenders within family and community life, the individual characters themselves with dashed hopes and distorted lives, are all powerfully portrayed. Anthony Marra lavishes detailed attention on every sentence. The text is creatively rich in simile and analogy, often reading more like poetry than prose. This conveys intense impressions, but is occasionally excessive, and always requires careful reading. Life stories are given brief future traces to show how normality can and does succeed outrage.

Marra has based his account on historical sources but as with all historical novels, it becomes difficult to know the exact delineation between fact and fiction. If his account of the torture in Russian interrogation centres in Chechnya is at all factually correct, then criminal prosecution in Russian and/or international courts of justice ought to follow.
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on 29 April 2013
"Time became more important the closer to death one was, so an extra few hours to make peace with the world were worth more than years."

This is Marra's debut novel, and in it we see his queerly outsized talent and deep knowledge of human motivation and possibility. Where did he get the knowledge from which he created this book, and how did he come to know it? In what he calls his Bibliography, Marra credits Anna Politkovskaya's A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, Åsne Seierstad's The Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, and Allah's Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya, New Edition by Sebastian Smith for giving him much of the background he needed to imagine this place, in this time, a ten-year period between 1994 and 2003.

Constellation immerses one in the East--at no time does one image oneself to be anywhere but in that place east of Europe and west of the Caspian. I suppose everyone will have familiarized themselves with Chechnya now, after the 2013 Boston Marathon, but it is north of the Caucasus Mountain Range that separates Russia and its "rind of former republics" from what westerners term The Middle East. It has been the site of grim partisan wars, by hand and in person, back when one actually had to show up to kill another.

This hard-hitting novel shows us the broken families littering the landscape there, some forced into unseemly alliances with enemies, and the nearly limitless capacity of humans to inflict pain. But still there are some among the legion who are broken, who retain a measure of humor, dignity, and goodness that they share with other good souls. They recognize one another, these folks who hold themselves aloof from the cruelty, and it is because of them that we can even dream of a day when the sun shines on a peaceful patch of land where they can grow the food they need, play chess in the shade of a large tree, make music and make love and laugh without fear.

Marra gives us all this--what is there and what is not yet there--through the depth and strength of his writing of a people, place and time. His descriptions linger in the memory and stop the eye on the page. The Russian doctor, Sonja, was "a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside a set of unattractive but very white scrubs." She returned to Chechnya from a safe place in London to find her beloved sister Natasha. "Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha's sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared."

She met Akmed, a better portraitist than he was a doctor, who helped her in the hospital and in life. In the midst of the betrayals and the shortening life horizon, for a brief moment "the circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed." But that moment passed and Havaa, beloved daughter of Dokka, remained, the daughter upon whom everyone's hopes were pinned.

The "Constellation of Vital Phenomena", gotten from an ancient medical text, is a term to describe life and in this definition consists of "organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, and adaptation." Couldn't the very same words be used to describe any work of art in the process of construction, like for instance, a novel?

This is an extraordinary piece of work, especially for a newcomer. I challenge you to forget this book, and your first up-close glimpse of that place called Chechnya. It distinguishes itself by its subject and the incisiveness of the writing. Despite the horror, or perhaps because of it, one wishes to see the place, to care and bear witness for the folks that stood up for their most basic rights--to live in peace, if not happiness.

"Not knowing what to do, [Kassan] walked back and forth [in the snow], urging the dogs to do so likewise, turning the snow into a riddle no one could solve."

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From ChechnyaThe Angel Of Grozny: Life Inside ChechnyaAllah's Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya"
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on 6 December 2014
The book was only ok
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on 9 February 2014
More than three quarters of the way through this heart breaking and compelling novel, the title - above - is defined for us. On page 1322 of a medical dictionary - Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. In the middle of one of the many awful wars of the past 100 years, this unusual definition places humanity, small kindnesses, personal and intimate deeds at the heart of the story and the people in this novel.

Chechnya - breakaway republic from the iron arm of Russia, rich in natural resources, not allowed to be in charge of its destiny by mighty Moscow. In our Western press, all we have ever really heard about this isolated far away place is the extreme actions of its terrorists. But this is a region which has had more than its fair share of destruction, rebuild, invasion, expulsion, rebuild than any population should have to bear. Hardly surprising they should choose to resist from time to time. But as with most stories of war, very little is ever told of the lives of the ordinary people, their inability to control or manage their fate and the fates of their families. So it is in this story.

Amazingly this is a first novel, and the author is still only in his twenties. Following a period of study in St Petersburg, he first came to learn about Chechnya, its people and its history. The quote above comes from a medical dictionary he was looking at one day.

The story moves somewhat erratically between 1994 and 2004 when the latest two wars took place. The action in 2004 takes place over five days and is centered in a village where three men - Akhmed, Dokka, Ramzan - all friends since childhood live. Another key character is Ramzan's father Khassan. The story is also told through the eyes of Dokka's eight year old daughter Havaa, a brilliant Russian born doctor Sofia and her sister Natasha. Heart breaking things happen to each of these people, and they are all faced at some stage with making some very hard decisions as they confront the terrible consequences of civil war.

In the very first paragraph Havaa sees her father seized by the Feds and her house burnt down. She is rescued by Akhmed who flees with her to the one and only surviving hospital which he knows is the only place Havaa will be safe from the Russians. He entrusts her to the care of Sofia, and as an ex-doctor himself stays to help out. Unfolding in the village is the ongoing search for Havaa, the dilemma that Ramzan who is an informer faces, and the position that Khassan too finds himself in. As the story unfolds Natasha's link to this small village and the resulting betrayals unfolds. Nothing, however, is ever simple, but the constant and at times annoying plot movements over the ten year period slowly begin to make sense.

This is a haunting story, and like many other novels of its kind, can't help but make us question how we, in our safe comfortable worlds, would behave in such extreme circumstances.
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on 17 November 2014
The plot involves you from the start, the storytelling leaves you always wanting to know more, the writing captivates you with glorious prose and memorable descriptions, the cast of characters are wonderfully quirky individuals whom we soon come to worry and care about, and the background (set in the Chechnian wars of independence) teaches you a chunk of modern history which many of us may have almost ignored until now. Marra offers a tremendous evocation of the chaos and randomness of (any) war and the harrowing experiences of powerless civilians and refugees, and yet, it is not a 'heavy' read. There is humour, and also a deep sense of humanity, resilience and hope which shines through and balances the accounts of cruelty and loss. I found this a remarkable book which I have already bought as a present for a relative. It will also be my next choice for the book club I attend. I strongly recommend it.
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on 23 June 2014
This is a wonderful book. Through the eyes of Sonja and Akhmed, a particular episode in the history of Chechnya is powerfully told.
Whilst Marra focuses almost entirely on the lives of Akhmed, a failed doctor who prefers to paint portraits of missing members of his village and Sonja, a very competent doctor who had the chance to lead a different life in London but has come back to single-handedly run a hospital, and on the terrible things that happen to them, their relatives and their friends, a feeling of the wider context pervades.
Material shortages are told in a matter of fact tone; disappearances are barely less shocking. However, some things remain of fundamental importance. The life and happiness of a little girl, the dignity of a sister.
I found this novel at some times almost unbearably sad, and yet it is told with a detachment that feels realistic. I really got the feeling that in those times, life was so hard and survival so costly that standards shifted deeply; it is engaging and inspiring to see how adversity can be dealt with whilst human dignity is still retained. At times, that dignity is almost most entirely, but there is always a redeeming gesture that brings the situation back from the brink.
The descriptions are beautiful and detailed; I could see the landscape destroyed by mines, feel the penetrating cold of the snow, imagine the destroyed city, recreated on the wall of the hospital. Akhmed and Sonja especially are wonderfully captured, with each of them having something that draws the reader in.
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on 24 August 2013
The writing is the most beautiful and powerful I have read in many years. The plot plumbs the depths of human depravity but somehow dredges up hope from despair. The characters seethe with all the vagaries and contradictions of real lives. In short, this book is quite simply a masterpiece and I would urge everyone to read it.
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