‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra

constellation

2013, 400p

Reading the debut book of a writer whose second book you really liked is a bit of a gamble. What if s/he only found firm footing with the second book? What if the first was a dud?

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities between Anthony Marra’s second book The Tsar of Love and Techno in that both books have sections set in Chechnya (in fact, the whole of Constellation is set there) and they both have oblique titles,  but this book focusses more on a small group of people and is ‘straighter’.

It is set over five days, and the book is divided into three sections (The First and Second Day;  The Third Day; and The Fourth and Fifth Day). But within these three sections the narrative slides chronologically- and I use the word ‘slide’ deliberately because each chapter is headed with a timeline spanning 1999 to 2004 with the year in which the chapter is set marked out in bold type. In 2004, in a small snow-covered village in Chechnya, the good hearted Akhmed watches as his life-long neighbour Dokka is arrested and his eight year old daughter Havaa flees into the woods.  Akhmed finds her, and knowing that they will come back for her too, he takes her to a Russian doctor in the city, Sonja Rabina, who is struggling to hold together her bombed-out hospital.  There’s lots of backstory to be filled in: why Dokka has been arrested; who informed on him;  who this doctor Sonja is, the relationship between the villagers, and the tension between Chechnyans and Russians. I know very little Chechnyan history, but I feel that I know more having read this book- and what an easy, seductive way to learn it.

All of this written with wisdom and compassion and with landscapes and people described so clearly that you can see it. Is this really only his second book and is he really only the age of my son? He’s good. Very good.

Delia Falconer wrote a very good review in the Sydney Review of Books.

My rating: 9.5

Read because: I so much enjoyed his second book.

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2 responses to “‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony Marra

  1. This was a five star read for me and it passes the test of time, too – I read it in 2013 and I can still remember sections of the book. By the sound of your review I really need to seek out his second book…

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