9780770436421

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA

Anthony Marra

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.

Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.

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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.

Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and 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.

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Paperback

Price: $15.00

ISBN: 9780770436421

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Hardcover

Price: $26.00

ISBN: 9780770436407

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About Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize, and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.

Praise

“A flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles….Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important….I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book.”Ron Charles, Washington Post

“Extraordinary….a 21st century War and Peace….Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy.”Madison Smartt Bell, New York Times Book Review

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ambitious and intellectually restless….[Marra is] a lover not a fighter, a prose writer who resembles the Joseph Heller of Catch-22 and the Jonathan Safran Foer of Everything Is Illuminated.”Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Over and over again, this is an examination of the ways in which many broken pieces come together to make a new whole. In exquisite imagery, Marra tends carefully to the twisted strands of grace and tragedy….Everything in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena…is dignified with a hoping, aching heartbeat.”Ramona Ausubel, San Francisco Chronicle

Discussion Questions

Before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, how much did you know about Chechnya? Which of the novel’s cultural details surprised you the most? What can fiction reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot?

How did your image of Akhmed shift throughout the chapters? Despite his many weaknesses, how does he become a source of strength for the loved ones in his life? How does his art restore the humanity around him?

Why is Sonja able to remain clear-eyed and resilient? What does she teach Havaa about being a woman, and about the limits of being a healer?

Discuss the betrayals that drive the storyline. Would you become an informant if your life depended on it? Can suspicion and corruption ever rise to a level that makes loyalty impossible?

What is Dokka’s greatest vulnerability? What do his daughter’s memories of him say about his hopes and fears?

Discuss the title (in chapter 24, Sonja stumbles across it in a Russian medical dictionary’s definition of life). What is phenomenal about the life force and the body’s intricate capabilities?

What is Khassan’s key to survival? Is his image of homeland and heritage accurate?

What is the effect of the timeline, encompassing five days in 2004 and flashbacks from a decade earlier? How does this approach echo the reality of memory and longing?

What does it mean for Sonja and Natasha to be ethnically Russian? When is this an advantage, and when is it a disadvantage? How are cultural identities shaped in the midst of political, military, economic, and religious power struggles?

What accounts for the very different fates of Natasha and Sonja? Is Natasha’s beauty an asset or a liability?

How is the concept of family—from the sisters’ relationship to Akhmed’s marriage to Ula—transformed in a land of warlords?

In his review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles describes the novel as “a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.” Discuss the book’s closing lines in that context. What does A Constellation of Vital Phenomena ultimately say about anguish and joy?