Book Review – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” – definition of life in a Russian medical dictionary

9781781090060If you ever doubted the power of fiction then this is the novel to reaffirm your belief. If you already know how powerful fiction can be, prepared to be blown away. In the tradition of The Kite Runner, Anthony Marra tells a story of love and war, horror and humour, the absurd and the profound that will make you laugh out loud and feel grief in the pit of your stomach.

One of the things (apart from the fantastic storytelling) that made The Kite Runner such a huge success was that it opened readers in The West’s eyes to a country that we had all ignored for decades but in the wake of 9/11 now had to confront. Khaled Hosseini gave us a story of a father and son, forced to flee their country after it was invaded and what it was like to return home decades later after the Taliban had taken control. He followed this up with A Thousand Splendid Suns which gave us the story of an Afghan woman who didn’t leave and we live through the horrors of life under the Taliban. Anthony Marra does something equally as powerful with the wars in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004. And after recent events in Boston this already powerful and poignant story takes on much more meaning and significance

Like Afghanistan my knowledge of Chechnya was sorely lacking. I was completely ignorant. I knew there had been a brutal war for independence from Russia there in the 1990s. I knew that there had been terrorist attacks in Russia by Chechen militants.I didn’t know there had been two separate wars, I thought it had been one long war. I did know Chechens were largely Muslim and that Russia had used the same rhetoric the US had to invade Iraq and Afghanistan to justify increasing their military campaign. But this was just stuff I’d gleaned from snippets on television news and short snippets in newspapers. I had no real understanding, no comprehension, no humanity. This novel changes all that.

The novel centres on a small Chechen village and four of its residents as well as a doctor at a nearby hospital. They have all lost something in the wars. They are all clinging to something else. A piece of hope, real and imagined. They are all trying to find a way to survive. They are not innocent but nor are they guilty. They are just trying to live a life cruelly interrupted by bombs, mortars and landmines. Where friends, colleagues, family members can simply disappear overnight. As you learn more about each character the depth of the tragedy of war is exposed; piece by piece, brick by brick, scar by scar.

I was completely immersed in this novel and its characters and literally balled my eyes out at the end. Anthony Marra’s novel does more than just put a human face on a human tragedy, he puts the tragedy inside you. You fell the pain and misery deep inside your bones but also the underlying power humanity. It’s uncrushable joy and hope and determination.

I never thought I could read a book that could surpass the absurdity of war captured by David Benioff’s City Of Thieves. Or the power of story and family captured by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Or the humanity captured by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. But that is exactly what A Constellation of Vital Phenomena does. This is a book I will never forget.

Buy the book here…

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Jon Page

Jon Page is a bookseller and author of the Bite the Book Blog.