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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Novel
Borrow Borrow
A National Book Awards Longlist Selection
A New York Times and Washington Post bestseller
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
A National Book Awards Longlist Selection
A New York Times and Washington Post bestseller
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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  • From the book

    Chapter 1

    2004

    On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we should go," he said, but neither moved.

    The snow softened around their boots as they stared across the street to the wide patch of flattened ash. A few orange embers hissed in pools of gray snow, but all else was char. Not seven years earlier, Akhmed had helped Dokka build an addition so the girl would have a room of her own. He had drawn the blueprints and chopped the hardwood and cut it into boards and turned them into a room; and when Dokka had promised to help him build an addition to his own house, should he ever have a child, Akhmed had thanked his friend and walked home, the knot in his throat unraveling into a sob when the door closed behind him. Carrying that lumber the forty meters from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping, but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried the small treasures that had made Dokka's house his own. There was the hand-carved chess set on a round sidetable; when moved, the squat white king wobbled from side to side, like a man just sober enough to stand, and Dokka had named his majesty Boris Yeltsin. There was the porcelain vase adorned with Persian arabesques, and beside that a cassette deck-radio with an antenna long enough to scrape the ceiling when propped up on a telephone book, yet too short to reach anything but static. There was the eighty-five-year-old Qur'an, the purple cover writhing with calligraphy, that Dokka's grandfather had purchased in Mecca. There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn't distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur'an and telephone directory returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke.

    The girl's fingers braceleted his wrist. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and sprint northward until the forest swallowed the village, but standing before the blackened timbers, he couldn't summon the strength to bring a consoling word to his lips, to hold the girl's hand in his own, to move his feet in the direction he wanted them to go.

    "That's my house." Her voice broke their silence and he heard it as he would the only sound in an empty corridor.

    "Don't think of it like that," he said.

    "Like what?"

    "Like it's still yours."

    He wound her bright orange scarf around her neck and frowned at the sooty fingerprint on her cheek. He had been awake in bed the previous night when the Feds came. First the murmur of a diesel engine, a low rumble he'd come to fear more than gunfire, then Russian voices. He had gone to the living room and pulled back the blackout curtain as far as he dared. Through the triangle of glass, headlights parted the night. Four soldiers, stocky, well fed, emerged from the truck. One drank from a vodka bottle and cursed the snow each time he stumbled. This soldier's grandfather had told him, the morning the soldier reported to the Vladivostok conscription center, that he would have...

About the Author-
  • Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, ANTHONY MARRA has won the Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize, and a scholarship to Bread Loaf. He has studied, resided, and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Narrator Colette Whitaker does a beautiful job with this stunningly accomplished first novel. Set in a tiny Chechen village during the wars, the story deals with human beings under the worst kinds of pressure life or art can devise, and looks at them straight on, with sympathy and depth and mercy. Whitaker must deal with Russian and Chechen accents, voices of men, women, and children, and characters that seem at first to be irredeemable but whose humanity is never in doubt. Again and again in this remarkable work you think you know what has happened and what it means, only to have it go wider and deeper. Whitaker's voice is lovely, and her command of her craft is deft and sure. You won't soon forget it. B.G. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award (c) AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 18, 2013
    Marra’s sobering, complex debut intertwines the stories of a handful of characters at the end of the second war in bleak, apocalyptic Chechnya. Though the novel spans 11 years, the story traces five days in 2004 following the arrest of Dokka, a villager from the small Muslim village of Eldar. His eight-year-old daughter escapes, and is rescued by Dokka’s friend Akhmed, the village doctor, who entrusts her to the care of Sonja, the lone remaining doctor at a nearby hospital. Why Akhmed feels responsible for Haava and chooses Sonja, an ethnic Russian keeping a vigil for her missing sister, as her guardian is one of many secrets; years of Soviet rule and the chaos of war have left these people unaccustomed to honesty. Marra, a Stegner Fellow, writes dense prose full of elegant detail about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war. Marra’s deliberate withholding of narrative detail makes the characters opaque, until all is revealed, in a surprisingly hopeful way, but there’s pleasure in reconstructing the meaning in reverse. As Akhmed says to Sonja, “The whole book is working toward the last page.” Agent: Janet Silver, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth.

  • New York Times

    "Brilliant."

  • Ron Charles, Washington Post "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."
  • Madison Smartt Bell, New York Times Book Review "Extraordinary....a 21st century War and Peace....Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy."
  • Dwight Garner, New York Times "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."
  • Ramona Ausubel, San Francisco Chronicle "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."
  • Ron Charles, Washingtonian "The most moving book I've read in years. By writing so beautifully about a tiny village in Chechnya, this 28-year-old Washington native has produced a timeless tragedy about the victims of war."
  • John Freeman, Boston Globe "A powerful tale....The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa...rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force....There are many reasons to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena....to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs....But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances."
  • John Barron, Chicago Tribune "[A Constellation of Vital Phenomena] pulls together blown-out bits of a world turned inside-out to create a brutal form of beauty from chaos....its prose is also ruefully funny in places and littered throughout with dazzling poetry."
  • Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings, for NPR "Amazing...brilliant...one of the most accomplished and affecting books I've read in a very long time....Though the lives lived in this novel can seem unbearable, what Anthony Marra has done is to diligently describe them in passionate, extraordinary prose."
  • Sarah Jessica Parker for Entertainment Weekly "With remarkable pathos and a surprising amount of humor, Marra keeps the focus on the relationships, struggles, and tiny triumphs of an unforgettable group of characters....Marra creates a specific and riveting world around his characters, expertly revealing the unexpected connections among them....this novel, full of humanity and hope, ultimately leaves you uplifted. Constellation deserves to be on the short list for every major award. It's an absolute masterpiece."
  • Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal "Marra is trying to capture some essence of the lives of men and women caught in the pincers of a brutal, decade-long war, and at this he succeeds beautifully....his storytelling impulses are fed by wellsprings of generosity....[the] ending is almost certain to leave you choked up and, briefly at least, transformed by tenderness."
  • New York "Excellent."
  • Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto "My favorite book of the year....Many people can write beautifully, but few manage to create a whole that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. Marra does this in spades. It is a brilliant book."
  • Adam Johnson, Pulitzer Prize--winning author of The Orphan Master's Son "Remarkable and breathtaking...a spellbinding elegy for an overlooked land engulfed by an oft forgotten war....Marra conjures fragile and heartfelt characters whose fates interrogate the very underpinnings of love and sacrifice."
  • The Rumpus "Marra elegantly slides across time and perspective, mastering an omniscient voice that reveals each character's future, present, and pas
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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
A Novel
Anthony Marra
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