Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Book review: Tragic disappearances, lingering hope fill 'Constellation'

Book review: Tragic disappearances, lingering hope fill 'Constellation'

  • Updated
  • 0
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra, Hogarth, $26

In her sister's apartment in Chechnya, Natasha stumbles across "The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians." Her sister, Sonja, is a brilliant doctor who studied medicine in London but has returned to her homeland, despite the constant turmoil of war. Perusing the pages, Natasha eventually stops on the definition of "life": "[A] constellation of vital phenomena— organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

Anthony Marra's debut novel takes its title from that definition and attempts to flesh out all aspects of "life" as defined in the surprisingly poetic Soviet dictionary. "Constellation" is mostly set in the Chechnyan village of Eldár during the 1990s and 2000s, amid constant strife from the rebels and the state security forces.

Akhmed, an out-of-work small-town doctor who wishes he could be a portraitist, saves Havaa, a young girl whose father, Dokka, was kidnapped mysteriously by the authorities. Havaa's and Akhmed's lives intersect with Natasha and Sonja when Akhmed leaves the girl in the only safe place he knows: the local, dilapidated Hospital No. 6, where the precocious Sonja -- all other doctors having absconded -- is effectively in charge. Akhmed cleans the laundry and assists in amputations.

Moving back and forth through the 1990s and 2000s, Marra slowly assembles the tragic puzzle of how these characters are linked together in far greater ways than they ever realize. Tension builds a little too slowly, but the elegant, stomach-dropping, emotional conclusion -- to say more would dull its sharpness -- is one of the most satisfying I've recently read.

Throughout, Marra's writing rarely falters. Most often it is superb: "Pigeons missing eyes and wings hobbled on the granite stone like portents of a war still years away." A few sections were likely self-contained short stories before they became part of this novel -- such as the long back story of Ramzan, who was tortured into informing on his fellow villagers -- but more memorable than the redundancies those sections contain are the book's vivid images, such as when Ramzan "measured the cold by the length of his breath, which grew and vanished, like a tusk that kept dissolving from his face." Although this is his first novel, Marra boasts an impressive resume, including a Whiting Writers' Award, a Pushcart Prize and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.

At one point, the young Havaa asks Sonja how one goes about finding missing people, like Havaa's father. "I don't know, Havaa," Sonja replies. "I don't. Maybe we try to find them in other people. In kindness and generosity; those things don't disappear." There are many tragic disappearances in "Constellation," including Sonja's own sister, Natasha. But there also is a lingering hope that we can define life, in all its forms, to contain some good things that will always last.

Greg Walklin is an attorney and freelance writer.


Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Manuel and Geiszel Godoy are military veterans, and they believe deeply in social justice. But above all, they are entrepreneurs who saw an underdeveloped sector in their industry and dove in. "We have to show that we can pull a Tyler Perry as a community," Manuel Godoy, president of Black Sands Entertainment, says in a recent video interview. "The idea is that the bigger the company gets, the ...

  • Updated

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, May 1, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. Sooley. John Grisham. Doubleday 2. Finding Ashley. Danielle Steel. ...

Over a year into the pandemic, your bookshelves may be so crowded with books that you can’t imagine adding another. But a 3-year-old dog named Stella will have you rethinking that. Not familiar with the brown pup with a white belly, a mix of Catahoula and Australian cattle dog? She’s quite the social media sensation, with 788,000 followers on Instagram, 101,000 followers on YouTube and 28,000 ...

Introducing Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and writer of children's books. The former actress' literary debut, titled "The Bench" and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is set to hit shelves June 8. The book, inspired by her husband and firstborn child's father-son bond, is based on a Father's Day poem Meghan wrote for Prince Harry a month after welcoming baby Archie in 2019. In a statement ...

"Finding the Mother Tree" by Suzanne Simard; Alfred A. Knopf (368 pages, $28.95) ——— Episodes of the cult television series "Twin Peaks" (1990-91) featured monologues with the enigmatic Log Lady, played to deadpan perfection by actress Catherine Coulson. She would cradle a cut of Ponderosa pine like a baby, channeling its koans. As a forester, biologist and ecological activist, Suzanne Simard ...

"Secrets of Happiness" by Joan Silber; Counterpoint (288 pages, $27) ——— We don't want to acknowledge it, but our lives are more transactional than we care to admit. We make trade-offs, weigh accounts, seek payback. Is our complicated relationship with money the root of the resentment grinding away in our hearts? We pretend wealth doesn't matter even as we bristle over its absence. But here's ...

"The Newcomer" by Mary Kay Andrews; St. Martin’s Press (448 pages, $28.99) ——— On the rare occasions that I’m driving on the Pinellas barrier islands and spot an OG beach motel — those low-slung, cozy, pastel-painted relics tucked in among the towering condos and raucous bars — I feel a little warm tug of nostalgia for the funky, friendly places I remember. Mary Kay Andrews’ imagination works ...

  • Updated

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, May 1, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. "Sooley: A Novel" by John Grisham (Doubleday) Last week: — 2. "Finding ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News

Husker News