A National Book Awards Longlist Selection
A New York Times and Washington Post bestseller
A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.
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Q&A with Anthony Marra
Q. Where did you study in Russia? How did that pique your interest?
A. As a junior in college I studied in St. Petersburg. War journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya had recently been assassinated; wounded veterans of the Chechen Wars trawled the metro cars for alms; street gangs routinely attacked people from the Northern Caucasus. Yet as an American I knew little about Chechnya. As soon as I began researching its incredible history, I never looked back.
Q. The setting of your book takes place during the Chechen Wars. Why did you choose this period of history as the backdrop of your novel?
A. Chechnya is a corner of the world largely mysterious to most Americans, yet it’s a remarkable place populated with remarkable people who have become accustomed to repeatedly rebuilding their lives. To quote Tobias Wolff, “We are made to persist...that’s how we find out who we are.” These characters commit acts of courage, betrayal, and forgiveness as they persist in saving what means most to them—be it their families, their honor, or themselves—from the destruction of war.
Q. The title of the book has a story. Can you please explain its meaning?
A. One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: “A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.
Q. Your writing style is unique in that you move back and forth between the present and the past. Was that a conscious choice?
A. Very much so. I wanted to write a novel expansive enough to cover the decade of the two Chechen Wars without losing the drama and suspense inherent in a more tightly coiled plot. By weaving the five-day story of a hunted girl through a larger backdrop, I hoped to combine the tension of a character-driven thriller with the richness of a historical epic. Also, moving through time shines a light on the seemingly trivial moments, relationships, and allegiances that affect characters in profound ways years down the line.
Q. What has had the greatest influence on your writing?
A. My mom has six siblings and my dad has four sisters and between them all there are more cousins than I count, which means that family events have always been filled with voices, stories, and laughter. From an early age I learned from them that stories are how we understand one another, how we preserve the past, and how we make meaning from the chaos of our lives.An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2013: In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra takes us to snow-covered Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. The novel, a remarkable decade-spanning debut, opens with eight-year-old Havaa looking on as her father is dragged off by Russian soldiers for a crime he did not commit. The soldiers set fire to Havaa's home, and next-door neighbor Akhmed attempts to hide her at nearby hospital. Sonya, the doctor who runs the facility, is hesitant to harbor Havaa, as the child invites unnecessary risk to her barely functioning hospital, but both she and Akhmed realize that Havaa represents something greater than a single life: she is the key to maintaining humanity in an ethnic conflict that is absurd and unjust. "There are things a person shouldn't understand," Akhmed says. "There are things a person has a moral duty never to understand." But by the end of Vital Phenomena, we do understand--with deeply emotional characters and gripping depiction of wartorn Chechnya, Marra makes us understand. --Kevin Nguyen About the Author:
ANTHONY MARRA is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), which won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and appeared on over twenty year-end lists. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and France’s Prix Medicis. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, California. His story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, is forthcoming from Hogarth (Fall 2015). Visit http://anthonymarra.net/
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