Even before the book was released, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena had a lot of buzz. It was talked up by John, our sales rep, as one of the first breakout titles of Crown’s new literary imprint, Hogarth. The imprint had already had one hit in Herman Koch’s The Dinner, but this was another animal entirely.
The story is set in Chechnya across two wars, from 1994 to 2004. Sonja, an ethnic Russian, tries to maintain order at the hospital, but with no other doctors and one nurse left, the best they can do is treat the wounded and be a safe haven for women to give birth. Arriving there is Akhmed, an ethnic Chechnyen, who claims to have medical experience, but not much. He offers to help, as long as Sonja will provide safe haven to Havaa, the daughter of his friend Dokka, who’s been taken by the feds, and Akhmed knows Havaa is next.
Sonja’s sister Natasha has disappeared, and she really has no clue what happened. This happens once before, when Sonja was doing medical training in London, and things didn’t go well. And Akhmed? Well his village is pretty much decimated, due to the war and not helped by the fact that his other friend, well former friend, Ramzan, has become an informant for the feds, turning in folks for sympathizing with the rebels.
Ramzan lives with his father Khassan, a former academic, who is horrified by Ramzan’s actions but really has no other alternatives. And while it would be best for Akhmed to flee, his sick wife keeps him tied to the village.
So the setup will remind you of several other books. Like The Tiger’s Wife, the book is set in a war-torn country in Eastern Europe, with a doctor-like hero. Tea Obreht’s book is more post-war, and though you see the ravages of war, there’s a lot more brutality in Marra’s novel and while there’s the same sense of fanciful imagery, Obreht’s is more magical realism while Marra’s is more grounded in reality. Another book we read in the group that is drawing comparisons is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.
Another book this reminded me of was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.* Both capture a place, in Johnson’s case North Korea, that I didn’t much understand, and used the novel’s intimacy to understand what’s happened in that part of the world. They also both exude paranoia. S. noted that the story had parallels to David Gillham’s City of Women, which she was currently reading for another book club. I was also reminded a bit of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, with its four characters holed up at the end of a war.
While A Constellation of Vital Phenomena didn’t quite explode on contact the way we hoped, it’s had a very steady sale, and a number of yearend best-ofs and an assortment of awards have helped its momentum. It won the John Leonard first fiction prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the first Carla Coen literary prize (she was the longtime co-owner of Washington's Politics and Prose), and the Discover Great Writers award for fiction from Barnes and Noble. Whatever it takes!
It didn’t seem to matter that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was a difficult, brutal, intricately woven book. The in-store book club was unified in its praise. J1 thought it was gorgeous, with realistic characters, and it really showed the human face of war.
J2 also liked it, though she warned that it was hard to read when you’re tired. The first word that came to L.’s mind was depressing, but she didn’t quite mean that in a negative way. It was well-written, compassionate, with dark humor, but there’s no way around it; the story highlights that there’s a lot of evil in the world.
S. liked it a lot. It reminded her of Jonathan Safran Foer, and she wanted to offer a special thank you to the author for not killing the dogs. G. noted it was quite dark, but liked it enough to read much of it twice. She appreciated all the research that went into the story, and liked finding out what happened to the characters, which offered glimpses of hope amidst the rubble.
C. noted she doesn’t normally read war stories but this was different as it followed the civilians, who are usually marginalized in such a story, but are often the big victims. N. probably was the one naysayer in the group. She was also depressed by the story, and was left confused by some of the plot jumps.
I was grateful that the author or publisher saw fit to put the year on every chapter heading , as there is so much time jumping going on . I also liked the small mystery element of trying to piece together what happened to both the gun and the suitcase, which each play important roles in the plot .
Of course a conversation wouldn't be complete without a word on cover treatment. For the paperback, the publisher moved away from the stars in the trees look in the hardcover and went with the bright blue suitcase in an battle-scarred field. Most of the attendees liked the paperback cover just fine. I wonder if the book wouldn’t have sold better with an emotionally charged picture of Havaa on the cover. I’d so much rather not see that, but I wonder if it would have helped sales.
The Canadian edition echoed the suitcase motif of the American paperback. Europe seemed to go with crisscrossing black sticks on a white field, with a bird and bloodlike red dots. For the paperback, the UK replaced the bird with what appears to be Havaa. The Swedish edition seems to be ebook only.
We spent a lot of time talking about Sonja and Natasha, and the family dynamics that seemed to play out between them. I wondered to the group whether the white slavery subplot was perhaps one too many horrors inflicted on the reader for one book. Their answer was fairly unanimous—it’s a part of war and should be there. Even escape is often no escape.
There is so much to talk about in this book! There are hard choices everywhere and fascinating friend and village dynamics. Life in an occupied country, life during wartime, confronting torture—there’s a lot to take in. Several of us noted the old testament parallels running through the story, most notably drawing from Abraham and Isaac, but also Cain and Abel, Leah and Rachel, and even Moses.
Is this book for everyone? No, of course not. For book clubs that are serious about discussion, however, and aren’t afraid to travel to dark places, but also need that emotional connection to help them handle the story, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is perfect.
Charles McGrath profiles Marra in The New York Times. Marra writes about his relationship with Chechnya in The Wall Street Journal.
Alas, our next book club discussion, for Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, was originally set for May 5, but when the publisher offered a visit from Garrison Keillor, how could we say no? Instead we moved our discussion to Thursday, April 24, at 6 pm, just before Wolitzer’s appearance at 7. We move back to our regular slot with Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, which we will discuss on Monday, June 2, 7 pm.
*It turns out Anthony Marra was a student of Adam Johnson.