[484]: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

ConstellationGOODREADS SUMMARY | Random House Canada | May 6th, 2013 | Paperback, 384 pp. | Adult Fiction | Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


This is one of those books that’s difficult to describe, with emotions that’s even harder to articulate. I’m always amazed when a writer is able to transform something despicable into a beautiful, life-affirming masterpiece. It’s hard to grasp that this is Anthony Marra’s debut work. The history, the hardships, the small miracles and the descriptive way he transports his reader to that time speaks of a veteran writer with several awards under his belt and not a – for lack of a better word – newbie.

It’s so easy to see how much time he spent immersing himself with the history for which this book is about. I, as a reader, can appreciate how he whet my curiosity for a war I was foolishly oblivious about. After reading this book, I spent some considerable time scouring the internet for anything I can find about the war; one that cost over 160,000 lives and immeasurable destruction for ten years. 

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Haava woke from dreams of sea anemones.”

The novel begins in a way that foretells the fate of Chechen nationals unlucky enough to have lived through the first and the second war. Haava, an 8-year-old clever, inquisitive child had just been orphaned. On the night of his abduction, Havaa’s father had the foresight to lead her into the woods to spare her life; while their neighbour, Akhmed, watched and waited fearfully until he’s able to see to Haava’s safety. In the morning, he’ll take her to the lone salvation he can offer the child by asking Sonja, the only surgeon left in their war-torn region.

Akhmed’s wife is in a permanent vegetative state. He’s seen through her care with very minimal resources he could afford and the paltry medical knowledge he remembers from school. He is, for all intents and purposes, a doctor himself. Although an incompetent one, for most of the time. What he lacks, he makes up with love and dazzling optimism in a world where kindness and beauty is buried deep in the rubble of a God-forsaken country.

I wish I could paint you the stories of these characters as beautiful as Anthony has done. I wish I can convince you to read it even though you’re probably grossing about how unnecessarily long this review had become.

 This is the type of novel where one person holds the key in unlocking the story’s brilliance. You can say it’s Havaa; for she touched the lives of each character; or Natasia, Sonja’s troubled sister who came and left like the smoke from a freshly-fired artillery. But that’s the best thing about this book. Anthony made every single one of his characters important enough to hold the story together.

Natasia and Sonja’s relationship bears the scar of an early childhood sibling rivalry. Over the years, they’ve played their roles with uneasy acceptance. Sonja, the one with the brilliant mind, moved to London to start her medical studies at the beginning of the first war. While Natasia stayed behind and tried to escape the best way she could. Sonja will lose contact with her sister and will eventually be the reason why she leaves the comfort and peace of London.

Natasia did not have an easy life. We see her suffer in the hands of an abusive lover; we see her fend for herself while bombs rained down on her city; we see her fall in the hands of a sex-trafficker by her own choice. Eventually, she’ll succumb to drug addiction. By the time Sonja and Natasia catches up to each other, both have gone through unimaginable horrors.

This is a war story. Nothing will be easy to digest. There are tales of torture, amputation, and heartbreak. But there are also love, compassion, and hope to brighten an otherwise stark novel. Once again, I find myself scouring the web; searching for the whys, the whens, and the hows. This is the kind of novel where a reader will be tempted to understand the futility of it all, and would cry at the impossibility of that task.

  • Oh wow, your descriptions of the world building make it sound beautiful, like this book has it’s own world in store where every little detail has been thought through, just waiting for us to read. I have to try this book, if only because you make it sound so amazing.

  • Its totally not a long review LOL and it must be some skillful writing indeed. I love it when an author’s words can make me SEE everything so vividly. Have I mentioned how much I love your photography!!? I do hehe

    • Thanks, Tabitha. 🙂 I thought I could at least hide behind good pictures if my reviews leave a lot to be desired. 🙂

  • I only skimmed your review because this is a book that I just added to my TBR (like seriously, just a few minutes ago) and I believe it was destiny for me to see the post! *wink* This is my type of book…as in, you have no idea!!! *snickers* I love getting emotionally beat up while I read. 🙂 Once I read this book I will circle back to this post, that way we can discuss it at length. ♥

    • Looking forward to reading your thoughts about this book! I have a feeling we’re reading soul sisters. 🙂

  • Hmm, it does sound like a ”hard” story. Not my kind of read honestly, I think I would be so sad and TOO deeply moved that it would be hard for me to read it. Glad you enjoyed though!

    • I like torturing myself sometimes. But this one, oddly enough, made me feel good in the end.

  • It’s good to hear the stuff on the inside is as good as that cover! Though it really does sound heartbreaking, as war stories tend to be. It’s outside my usual reading comfort zone, but I really am intrigued by the sound of this.I’m going to have to keep this book in mind. Thanks for the lovely review!

    • Thanks, Bec. It is definitely not for everyone. I hope you’ll keep this book in mind when you’re in the mood for a bout of heavy reading.

  • Amazing review Joy! I really wish that I would suck it up and read more Historical Fiction. I’m such a baby, and for some reason I always end up reading an HF book that brings me to non-stop tears lol. I’ve been avoiding books about war especially because gosh they’re so effing sad!

    • This is the kind of Historical Fiction I like to read. It’s such a learning experience!

  • This sounds like such an emotionally jarring read, Joy. Not sure it’s for me, but I’m happy to hear you found it so compelling! 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel. This was such a lovely book though. I hope you’ll give it a chance in the future.

  • Oh, this sounds like an incredibly read! Depressing, but incredible. I know it is a debut, but does the author have any other books planned for the future?

    • I’m not too sure, to be honest. I hope he does. Brilliance like this shouldn’t be suppressed.

  • This sounds like such an incredible read Joy, but such an emotional one too. The characters too sound fantastic. I shall definitely be adding this one to the tbr, but will give it a go when I’m fully prepared for it. Fantastic review Joy, also I love love your photo of the book, with the sun streaming in

  • Wow! This sounds like an interesting read. I’ll have to give it a go 🙂

  • Sad face. This book sounds depressing. Yet all kinds of awesome too. I love that cover. <3 SO gorgeous. I'm so glad you loved this book sweetie 😀 I'm not sure if it is a book for me, but it do seem interesting 🙂 Thank you for sharing about it Joy. <3

  • You’ve totally convinced me, I need to read this. It was new to me until now and I really like that cover! Although it deals with some serious issues, it sounds like they were dealt with well and the emotional aspect is definitely intriguing.

  • Oh wow. This sounds wonderful. Definitely the kind of book I’m always wishing I made time to read.

  • I’ve had this book on my kindle for so long, and I didn’t even know it was this sad. But I’m glad you loved it! I should read this soon!

  • Wauw, this sounds really good (:

  • The concept of this novel reminds me of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Poor Natasia, it sounds like she had a heart wrenching life.

  • What a wonderful cover! I didn’t know about this one but it sounds like an intense and emotion story. And wow 5/5? It’s rare from you so I’m intrigued.

  • What a gorgeous photo joy! That sunlight is delicious.

    I added this a little while back, no doubt on your recommendation for one of your haul posts. It sounds incredible! Any 5 star Joy rated book automatically gets added for me now, this one included. They make awesome pleasure reads for me. Thanks for sharing yet another phenomenal review <3

  • I’m slowly revisiting literary fiction, I think too much of PNR/UF has dulled me somewhat (LOL) and I need beautiful prose to feed my gray matter.

  • I agree with Christy, beautiful photo!

    This does sound like a wonderful read and your review is just gorgeous Joy! I can tell how much this read meant to you. Wonderful job!

    Have a great weekend and thanks for sharing this with us. 🙂

  • While this isn’t the book for me I don’t think, I’m definitely going to recommend it to my mother in law for her book club! It sounds like a story that will inspire a great deal of debate and discussion, and she adores those types of books. Your review was absolutely gorgeous:)

  • Wow, it definitely sounds like an intense, dark and touching story. Glad you enjoyed it, great review, Joy!

  • Melanie (YA Midnight Reads)

    Ooh this sounds like something I wanna give a go! i love reading war stories and seeing that you gave this 5 stars, I can’t miss this xD

    Lovely review as usual, hun <33

  • And it’s still not over :/

  • Christy

    First of all, that’s a gorgeous photo. But damn, this sounds like a fascinating book. I just check Goodreads, and that is quite the accumulation of awards.