I must admit to slight reservations before reading this book. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of my favourite books of 2013, narrowly missing out on being my book of the year (I had to do a re-read of my top two to split them). What had me hesitant was that his follow up book was short stories. I am not completely adverse to short stories but they are not my favourite form of writing. I can also be quite cynical and I was a bit suspicious about following up a spectacular debut novel with a collection of short stories. Boy, was I wrong!!!!
Anthony Marra has written a worthy follow up to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that will once again make you laugh, make you learn and break your heart. Through interconnected stories Marra takes us from Leningrad in 1937 through to St Petersburg in the modern day exploring life in the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. Full of dark humour Marra explores life under a totalitarian regime and the impact as that regime slowly disappears. He shows how people etch out their part in it and learn to survive, or not. At it’s heart it is a story about family and how no matter how hard others try and erase it, it is always there, enduring.
Each story told is self-contained and is writing of the highest order. There is no way to pick a favourite story, they all stand out. We begin with a Soviet censor in 1937 whose job it is to erase the pictures of those who have been denounced by Stalin’s purges. We then follow the granddaughter of a famous ballet dancer, who was denounced, erased by the censor and sent to an Arctic mining town. As the Soviet Union collapses, and capitalism comes to the new Russia, the ballet dancer’s granddaughter is given the opportunity to escape the exiled existence her family has been sentenced to, but at a cost. We meet a Russian soldier conscripted to Chechnya and later taken prisoner. We meet an art museum curator in Grozny trying to rebuild after two wars. And we meet a father and son in St Petersburg, each of whom are looking for answers for questions they can’t or won’t ask. Anthony Marra ties all these lives together in a beautiful and poignant way with writing that grabs you from the opening page all the way through to the ending, breaking your heart numerous times along the way.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena announced Anthony Marra as an exceptional talent to watch. His new book book confirms it. This is a writer you are not only going to hear a lot about right now but for many, many years to come.