TLC Book Tour Review of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra

Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.

This is a book that is both wonderful and terrible, all at once. I agree with the critics that it is a masterpiece of writing, but taking this plunge into a fictional representation of the real-life hell of war-torn Chechnya is far from a happy experience.


The story begins in 2004 the morning after the Russian military (“The Feds”) have “disappeared” a villager named Dokka, orphaning his 8-year-old daughter Havaa. A neighbor and friend, the less-than-competent village doctor named Akhmed, comes to find her, and takes her to the local hospital to see if the (only) doctor there, Sonja, will take Havaa into her care. He has to act surreptitiously to avoid the other neighbor, Ramzan, whom he suspects of having informed on Dokka. Even Ramzan’s father, Khassan, avoids Ramzan, although they live in the same house.

As the story unfolds, we learn more about these damaged individuals trying to survive in a land in which one wrong step can detonate a land mine or – perhaps worse yet – call you to the attention of hostile authorities. The Feds are in the business of killing not only suspected insurgents but any relatives of those under suspicion, in order to deter further disobedience to the Russian hegemony. Sonja’s patients are broken in so many ways by man or machine that she is astoundingly grateful when Havaa arrives with intact limbs and an unbroken spirit. Still, Sonja has no time or energy (physically or emotionally) to take care of Havaa, especially while she is still mourning the absence (unexplained, like so many of the absences) of her sister Natasha.

The story occasionally flashes back to 1994 to provide background on how these characters came to be who and what they are. Some of the answers can be found in “The Landfill,” a notorious torture camp that most of them have familiarity with for one reason or another. As we segue back to 2004, we learn more about the confluence of events that brought these characters together, and the dangers they face in trying to survive another day. And in fact, some will, and some won’t.

Where in the world is Chechnya?

Where in the world is Chechnya?

Discussion: This book tackles several thorny issues, torture being among them. Always my focus when I hear or read about torture is not as much on the recipient of this ghastly process but on the practitioners. What kind of people can do this to others? What does it mean that they can? What exactly does it take to cause people to see other people not as human beings but as objects to be used or abused? And once they have crossed this line, can they ever return?

The author does an excellent job of illuminating the thought processes of the victims: those who are forced to balance the desire to remain loyal and to be the sort of people they think they are, with the reality of instruments that gouge and amputate and sear and create incredible amounts of agony. You think you will hold out, but you don’t really know the point at which fear and pain can break down any bravery, convictions, and love for others that you hold.

There is not so much insight on what makes a person a torturer. But the perpetrators and abusers in this book are not the focus of the story. And maybe there is no clear answer at any rate.

The book is also very much about the notion of family and what actually constitutes it. What are the “rules” of love and allegiance? Or are there any?

We also get a hard look at the central role memory plays in our lives: as much as any explosive in the ground, it too constitutes a minefield for these survivors: its sheer intensity and resulting tyranny over people; the way it changes our perceptions and informs our actions and reactions; how difficult it can sometimes be, especially after traumatic experiences, to move past it and get on with life.

And perhaps most centrally, there is the question of what happens to humanity in the midst of conflict. At one point Akhmed asks, “Is common decency too much to ask?” It is in fact the overriding question of this novel, and one that I think each reader may answer differently.

Evaluation: This book is very impressive. It is not only well-crafted – balancing blood and tears with love and humor and hope, but rich in its ability to make the reader think about the issues presented, and allowing us to imagine lives that, hopefully, are very foreign to the majority of readers. This story – especially the poignancy of Sonja’s evolution and the description of the transcendent, tear-producing last encounter between two friends, will haunt me for a long time. It would make an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Hogarth, a trademark of the Random House Group, Limited, 2013


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13 Responses to TLC Book Tour Review of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra

  1. sandynawrot says:

    Excellent review Jill. The book is both fascinating to me (I know nothing about the war in Chechnya) and a little intimidating. It would be a horrible thing to read but probably important that we do it anyway.

  2. Ti says:

    I agree, it would be a great discussion book for a club.

    I had a hard time liking any of the characters and Natasha’s story broke my heart. A wayward soul for sure.

  3. Even though this sounds somewhat disturbing, I think I would get a lot out of reading it and find it fascinating.

  4. Heather says:

    You’re so critical of books that any time you give something a 4 or better I want to read the book. This one sounds really difficult but also incredibly important to read.

  5. Wow, this book sounds so powerful in its portrayal. It is an intimidating topic, that of torture, and I don’t know if I can read it, but I will keep it in mind because of your review.

  6. Sounds like a tough but worthwhile read. Your review was excellent Jill.

  7. Rita K says:

    I have been meaning to get this and read it. I will have to do that now.

  8. Barbara says:

    Thank you for pointing this one out to us, Jill. I hadn’t heard of it, but since the Boston bombings I’ve wondered about the Chechnian people and how they got the beliefs they have about authority figures, and the use of violence to “solve” (?) their problems. Even the ones who haven’t been violent, speak the same sentiments when they are interviewed by the press. Sounds like I would find the answers to my questions in this book.

  9. I loved this book so much!!!

  10. Darlene says:

    I saw another review of this recently and was intrigued then and still am. This sounds like a fascinating book. I can’t imagine how people can torture others and yes, it makes you wonder how they can. There has to be something in you that allows you to shut off human compassion and do that. I don’t know but I do know this is going on my reading list.

  11. Wow, this sounds like an amazing story about a place and time that I (sadly) know very little about.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful review for the tour. I’m featuring it on TLC’s Facebook page today.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    No way I could read this right now.

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