review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


Book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Status: loved it

I have a friend who is just as voracious a reader as I am. We rarely read the same books, but nearly every day – for a number of years now – we talk about whichever books each of us is reading. Months and months (years?) ago, she recommended A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (by Anthony Marra).

Even though I finally took her suggestion, I didn’t make my way through the book very quickly. But I tried to find time on the weekends to settle in here, on the porch sofa, and savor this story.



I’ll admit that when my friend first told me about this one, I was skeptical. A book about an orphan in war-torn Chechnya? No, thanks. I couldn’t imagine how this story could be anything but sad.

But I’m so glad I finally picked it up and gave it a try.

Make no mistake: this story is brutal, violent, and often gruesome; the timeline jumps all over the place, making things potentially confusing; and the author has a habit of throwing in more information than the story or the reader may ever need.


War is horrific, and many parts of this story are incredibly dark and sad. But the story is told so compassionately – and so exquisitely – that the horror doesn’t feel gratuitous. And the characters are so complicated and fully human that we, and they, find beauty and humor in the midst of the darkness.

Keeping track of the book’s fluid timeline does require a fair bit of concentration. The story loops back on itself, over many years, with crucial events told and retold from different points of view. This may sound confusing but, more than anything, it adds multiple, humanizing layers to each character and a deeper understanding of each event – and of each person’s motivations.

And all those extra details I mentioned? They are so precise, so lush, that in some cases the details and the extra “unnecessary” information convey all the beauty, joy, and hope that this story has to offer. For those of us who love piecing together puzzles made of lovely, tiny (in many cases, perhaps otherwise insignificant) pieces, this book reminds us that we’re all human and that life itself is beautiful.


mug of tea