Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

constellation_vitalWhat is life?

The prior question was once pondered solely by humanity’s greatest minds, but now, to the chagrin of some, has become somewhat cliched ponderation of the masses. Yet this propagation of the question what is life? is neither deplorable nor unexpected, for, in all verity, it is a fundamental consideration in the collective human consciousness, a driving factor that motivates us to make sense of this experience we all share.

In an attempt to address this question, or at least provide a platform by which it can be effectively considered, writer Anthony Marra reduces this ubiquitous thing we call life to the following: a constellation of vital phenomena-organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaption, a definition whose first three words title his debut novel. By Marra’s own admission, he extrapolated the aforementioned definition of life from a medical textbook, an object which, as his novel even seems to suggest, is a prodigious, lifeless, static pool of knowledge surveyed and marked by wise men of ages past. Despite the seemingly esoteric and perhaps at first bland nature of this definition, through the course of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it becomes a stunningly beautiful mechanism by which the whole of human life can be understood.

While a new novel, published in 2013, Marra’s work can easily be counted among the highest ranks of literature from all ages. The writer’s prose drips with mastery, perhaps best evident in his provision of detail, which, although occasionally rambling, is rich and luscious. Indeed, these subtleties, albeit meritorious for their exquisite verbiage in themselves, perhaps more importantly contribute to the storytelling for which Marra is even more laudable as they color events in the lives of the novel’s characters.

Indeed, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to a substantial degree ignores the traditional and popular sense of plot, with its linear and structured qualities, adopting a more free-flowing composition in which various moments of the lives of a slew of characters who live in a war-torn Chechnya are criss-crossed. In actuality, the novel spans the five days after the capture of Dakka, father of Havaa and friend of Akhbar, the latter of whom takes the former to a hospital in the Chechen capital city, Grozny, which lies 12 kilometers from their village of Eldár, in the hopes that the renowned surgeon, Sonja, who runs the nearly defunct medical facility, will allow the young girl to reside there.

One of the most rewarding facets of the novel is the full development of all the story’s major characters, a feat achieved through that very detailed presentation of different moments in each of their lives. Similarly wonderful is the fact that Marra ties the characters together in the most seemingly trivial, yet achingly touching and poignant ways. The author creates with his web of characters and events a mirror to the definition of life from which he draws his inspiration. Truly, the novel becomes its own organism, a cornucopia of characters who tell a hauntingly beautiful tale of a lost girl and allude to the complexities of life in general. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena calls the reader into deep reflection, in particular to view his or her own life as just that, a series of inseparable and interrelated moments and people and things, making all of life’s constituent parts ever more lovely and significant.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

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