I’ve been very picky in reading this past spring — literally put down 7 out of 12 books, without finishing. But today I’m motivated to post the first book review I’ve shared on this site, because so bowled over by Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, Jan. 2013).
And the Winner Is…
I first picked this novel up when it began appearing on lists nominating it for various national and international book awards last year. Constellation won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction. It was also nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction, and appeared on numerous best-reads lists, including the Goodreads Choice list.
I was particularly intrigued because I “knew” Anthony from when he participated in a writer’s forum back when he was applying for a Stanford Stegner fellowship, years back. Constellation is Marra’s first novel. I shared this interest here before, when I included link to an interview with Marra by the New School in Friday Links for Writers: 02.21.14.
From this, what I knew of the book in advance was that it was intelligent and stark, with some risks taken in multiple narrative threads.
Stunning and Beautiful
What I found was an intelligent, sometimes poetic, emotionally powerful insight into individual lives of civilians during the wars in Chechnya. The simplest compliment I could give the novel was the point, midway through, when I found myself comparing the narrative impact of the writing to Tolstoy.
Marra’s writing is beautiful, brave, clean and with an unhurried confidence that left a nuanced and authentic portrayal of characters who were altogether new. As the novel opens, a young Chechen girl, Havaa, is watching her house burn, knowing her father has been disappeared. She is quickly spirited away by Akhmed, a close friend of her father’s, who takes on a job (as the worst physician in Chechnya) in Hospital No. 6 in order to convince the head doctor to hide the girl. As three more key characters are introduced, Marra weaves together histories and desires that reveal the personal losses and motivations that populate the lives of civilians in wartime.
Fascinated by Marra’s Narrative Structure
There is an idiosynchratic spirit to Constellations. I’d heard it described as multiple stories woven together, but what he accomplishes is much more organic and unified than that.
Divisions of the novel are based on time. There are 28 chapters to the novel, grouped into parts that measure the five days after Dokka is disappeared. At the top of each chapter is a timeline band, highlighting the relevant years for that chapter. While the storyline progresses through the events after Dokka is taken, each chapter moves organically through the minds of the main characters and how the past 20 years of memories led each of the characters to the events of these 5 days. The complexity of the structure is pulled off beautifully.
Some risks are taken in the ways that Marra plays with voice, as the narrative fluctuates in varying degrees of 3rd person. The most basic structure is that each chapter begins with close 3rd on one of 5 main characters; line spacing mid-chapter usually then signals a shift to close 3rd from another main character’s pov. Frequently, however — particularly in traumatic encounters with other players in the war, such as arrival in the ER of a man whose leg was blasted apart by a landmine — narrative voice shifts to omniscience for 1-3 lines, revealing inner secrets, thoughts or future outcomes of this side character before returning to the main character’s pov. The effect of this intrigues me, as it breaks a linear plane to create a wavery effect that is less godly than a shared-awareness that seems fitting in an environment where all predictable rules have dissolved. What is impressive is Marra’s control, as pov shifts are accomplished without apology or need for awkward segues. By visiting Havaa’s pov in the opening line, then Akhmed’s within the next line, Marra has effectively signaled that views will shift.
The concept of the novel is powerful. I was continually impressed at Marra’s ability to deliver with nuanced subtlety how each individual progresses through the insane or horrifying events of war (or warlike conditions and even torture in supposed peacetime). He manages to present the factual history in a manner that is seamless with the characters’ individual voices and storylines.
What is most powerful are the characters. While it is a novel revealing truisms of war, it is ultimately a novel about love and compassion and the warmly developed lives of characters in this small village. Each character is vivid, intriguing and their stories compelling.
Congrats to Anthony Marra for making my Top Reads of 2014.
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What Are You Reading?
I’m getting ready to post my Summer Reading List for 2014, which has me curious what everyone else is reading. I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments. Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list. If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.
Where do the book links take you?
For convenience, you can click the book link to Marra’s book in the opening paragraph, which takes you to Amazon. Or, you can find it at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:
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More on Books and Reading:
- My Reading List: Winter 2014
- My Summer Reading List 2013
- March Reading Challenge: The Books You Always Meant to Read
- 2012: Year of the Book