Reviews for Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Booklist Reviews 2013 April #1
*Starred Review* In this extraordinary first novel, Marra homes in on a people and a region that barely register with most Americans and, in heartrending prose, makes us feel their every misfortune. In rural Chechnya, during the second war, a small group of people struggle to survive in the bleakest of circumstances. A gifted surgeon works tirelessly in a crumbling hospital, hardening her heart so that she can perform her gruesome work. An eight-year-old girl who has already seen too much is being hunted by the government ever since the night her father was abducted by Russian soldiers. An incompetent doctor who longed to be an artist paints portraits of 41 neighbors who were killed by government forces and hangs them in the doorways and trees of his ruined village. And a lonely man, once brutally tortured, turns government informant to obtain the insulin needed by his diabetic father, who, in turn, refuses to speak to him. Marra collapses time, sliding between 1996 and 2004 while also detailing events in a future yet to arrive, giving his searing novel an eerie, prophetic aura. All of the characters are closely tied together in ways that Marra takes his time revealing, even as he beautifully renders the way we long to connect and the lengths we will go to endure. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 March #1
A decade of war in Chechnya informs this multivalent, heartfelt debut, filled with broken families, lost limbs and valiant efforts to find scraps of hope and dignity. Marra's vision of Chechnya in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union is inevitably mordant: religious and separatist battles have left the roadways studded with land mines, the buildings pockmarked with bullets and many residents disappeared and tortured. The characters Marra brings to this landscape, though, are thankfully lacking in pieties about the indomitability of the human spirit. At the core of the story is Sonja, a longtime doctor with a flinty, seen-it-all demeanor who, as the story starts in 2004, has taken in an unlikely pair: Akhmed, a barely competent but well-intentioned doctor who is protecting Havaa, whose father has been abducted. Akhmed is quickly put to work learning to saw off shrapnel-flayed legs, and as the novel shifts back and forth in time, each of their stories deepens. The most affecting and harrowing subplot involves Sonja's sister Natasha, who is missing as the story begins; we quickly learn the various indignities she suffered in the years before, forced into prostitution and addicted to heroin but later recovered enough to help deliver babies alongside her sister. Marra has carefully threaded his characters to work an everybody-is-connected theme, and some of those connections ultimately feel contrived. But he's a careful, intelligent stylist who makes the most of his omniscient perspective; one of his favorite tricks is to project minor characters' fates into the future; by revealing their deaths, he exposes how shabbily war treats everybody and gives the living an additional dose of pathos. The grimness is persistent, but Marra relays it with unusual care and empathy for a first-timer. A somber, sensitive portrait of how lives fray and bind again in chaotic circumstances. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 April #1

Marra's debut novel places readers in Chechnya during its decadelong conflict with Russia and offers up an authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime. The narrative centers on three people: eight-year-old Havaa, whose father has been "disappeared" by Russian forces; her neighbor Akhmed, a failed doctor who tries to hide her in the only operational hospital he knows; and Sonja, the area's last remaining surgeon, who is trying desperately to find her missing sister. As he shifts in time through the years of the two Chechen wars, Marra confidently weaves those plots together, and several more besides, giving each character a rich backstory that intersects, often years down the line, with the others. Though sometimes difficult to digest--episodes of casual violence and savage brutality punctuate the otherwise graceful prose--the novel's tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances. VERDICT Marra's moving novel will appeal to admirers of Tea Obreht's similarly war-torn novel The Tiger's Wife, but his story relies less on magical realism and more on the seemingly random threads binding us together. Highly recommended for all readers of literary fiction.--Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

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Library Journal Reviews Newsletter
"On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." With this ravishing opening sentence, debut novelist Marra plunges us into a world of brutal violence and heartbreaking beauty. Over the course of five days in an abandoned hospital in the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, the bereaved Havaa, her neighbor and protector Akhmed, and Sonja, a Russian doctor, discover the "seemingly random threads binding us together." (LJ 4/1/13)--WW (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 February #3

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. (May)

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