Book of the Month: August 2013


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It isn’t often that a debut novel has the command of language, understanding of the human condition, and profound investigation into a history and culture perhaps little known to the general reader, to warrant comparisons to Tolstoy, Pushkin and other of the great novelists of all time. The Tiger’s Wife, the 2011 debut novel by Tea Obreht about an unnamed country in the Balkans lacerated by war, is perhaps comparable to Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in this sense. In having as its principle characters two doctors, it also bears some resemblance to the earlier novel. Although A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place during and in the aftermath of the two recent wars in Chechnya, in 1994 and 2004 respectively, it is not a book about soldiers, generals or battles. Instead, as Marra explained in an interview, “It’s a novel about people who are trying to transcend the hardships of their circumstances by saving others.” Our many readers who were enthralled by the language and complex interweaving of history and story in The Tiger’s Wife will undoubtedly be mesmerized by Anthony Marra’s beautiful and devastating novel of memory and survival.

Where Obreht’s novel often utilizes a blend of realism and fantasy that hearkens back to Gabrial Garcia Marquez, the surrealistic elements in Marra’s novel come from the accounts of journalists, such as the assassinated Anna Polistskaya, and from direct observations on a tour the young writer made of the region in 2012. Although the novel is predominantly set in 2004, it masterfully weaves events from the earlier iteration of the war through the lives of its main characters, Havaa, an eight-year-old girl whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers, presumably never to be seen again, Akhmed, the inept village doctor turned portrait painter of the “disappeared” who saves the girl, and Sonja, the brilliant Moscow trained surgeon now working in a hospital in Chechnya where she has to perform surgery using dental floss. Their lives are bound together through loss and the unquenchable need, despite the worst deprivations and suffering, to create human bonds and preserve hope.

Simply put, this is a book that must be read. Although it is unsparing at times in its descriptions of torture and suffering, it retains a sense of hope and vitality that are a testament both to the the writer’s love for humanity, and to our shared need to uncover beauty at the heart of even the darkest episodes of the human story.


In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.


Anthony Marra was born in Washington, D.C. He has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Narrative Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Non-required Reading. In 2012, he received the Whiting Writers’ Award. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he will begin teaching as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction this fall. He has studied and resided in Eastern Europe, traveled through Chechnya, and now lives in Oakland, CA.

© Literary Affairs, 2005-2024. All Rights Reserved.