Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Where to start…

I had to read this book for a young adult book club/professional development group I’m in: the purpose of the book club is to assess novels for possible use in classrooms. I would not have chosen to read this novel on my own (I had heard of it and read some preview pages and decided it wasn’t for me), and I certainly would never have finished it if I didn’t have to.

That said, I am torn. The novel has brilliant moments of literary merit. As a teacher, I could certainly choose passages to show my students in order to analyze character, writing style, and even writing technique. But as a reader, this book wanted me to work too hard in an attempt to appreciate something that I honestly felt was soulless.

Marra’s work takes us to war-torn Chechnya and follows several characters over the course of a decade. To add a plot to an otherwise plotless tale, the author compresses the timeline to span only a number of days, with the rest of the story being told in flashbacks. As a reader, we are asked to juggle several characters and several years: this is a lot of mental work to demand. As I read, I kept thinking that if I wanted to put this much effort into reading a novel, I would have chosen to read one of the classics I have not yet read.

The author used the time hopping to add a bit of omniscience to the tale, even despite being limited to various points of view. For instance, and I hyperbolize only a bit, he would provide us with a scene, and then he would write something like and then she wiped her nose and stuffed the tissue into the cushion of a couch, where it would remain forgotten until thirty years later, when its crusted remains would be found by her grandson, who would put it on display in his office and compose a poem about the horrors of war for which he was paid a three-hundred dollar honorarium, which he would use to dedicate a bench at the local library to the beloved grandmother he had never met. Once in a while this is fine, but to me the problem is, the whole work felt like it was without a soul.

When I read Nathaniel Hawthorne, I feel the utter torment of his thoughts bubbling through the work. When I read Steinbeck, I feel that he was truly there with the Joads traveling to California and starving for food. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I can feel Hardy reeling against the double standards of his time. When I read Constellation, I felt that the author was trying too hard to be literary without any genuine soul behind it. I felt he was writing the novel for self-glorification rather than a sense of caring about the people he was writing about. For me, that made the story seem flat and contrived, even despite its moments of literary brilliance.

When I first started reading, I thought maybe my initial assessment had been wrong. I am fascinated with freedom as a theme, and when an eight-year-old witnesses her father being taken away by militants, I thought perhaps this would be a novel similar to 1984, one that spoke against corrupt governments. And there are moments throughout the novel in which this theme emerges and people are put to ultimate tests to determine whether wartime allows us to stand by principles or whether there are merely situations where we react to pick the lesser evil of two seemingly unprincipled options. Indeed, several characters are left to make one of two terrible choices: it’s easy to criticize them without understanding their situations, and as the story unfolds, we learn about their tormented pasts and understand their motivations–and even sympathize with them.

Then some chapters follow one character closely, so I thought maybe the book is a human interest one, allowing us to see a war-torn country through a human perspective. But there was too much head-hopping and time-hopping to allow me to truly relate to a character and truly care about any of them. Just when I start caring, we’re in a different decade or a different perspective. Why would one do that to a reader, especially a modern reader with so many other choices out there? I was never once a captive reader, and I was always conscious of the pages creeping by. Every spread felt like an eternity—and I am a fast reader.

If you are going to tackle this book, go in with an outline of characters and timelines. There are moments you will enjoy, but it’s a lot of work—and with so many other great books out there, why would you put yourself through this? I realize there are plenty of people who love this book, so I don’t want to deter you if you think you might enjoy it. It simply wasn’t for me.

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