A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Five words from the blurb: Chechnya, soldiers, doctor, friend, responsibilities

I first heard of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena when an unsolicited review copy dropped through my letterbox. I was instantly drawn to the title and looked forward to reading it nearer its publication date. Since then this book has been getting rave reviews, especially from the US where it was published slightly earlier.

The book is set in war-torn Chechnya and takes place in the five days after 8-year-old Havaa’s father is abducted by Russian soldiers. Havaa’s neighbour, Akhmed, watches in horror as her house is burnt to the ground, but once the soldiers have left he rescues the young girl, taking her to the safety of the local hospital.

The book began really well. I loved the atmospheric descriptions of the snow-covered village and the uncertainty around Havaa’s future, but as the book progressed I became increasingly bored. The pace of the book slowed and I found myself with no real compulsion to read on. The characters lacked depth and I realised I didn’t care about them.

It was a simple gesture, no more than a flick of her fingers, performed without malice or contempt, but with complete disinterest, and it cut through Akhmed like a fin through water. In her indifference he saw the truth of a world he didn’t want to believe in, one in which a human being could be discarded as easily as pocket lint.

The plot improved in places and the last 50 pages were especially good, but overall I was disappointed. I can’t fault the vivid writing, but something about the story didn’t quite feel right. It lacked the realism produced when written by someone present during events. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I found it lacking passion and that special spark. It also seemed to be missing the Russian mindset, reading like a group of Americans placed in Chechnya.

I seem to be one of the only ones not to fall in love with this book so it is probably still worth checking it out, especially if you like slower paced literary fiction.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

This is a beautifully wrought novel that brought tears to my eyes. CaribousMom

This book is so emotionally stunning, so beautifully written, and so elegantly painful that I could just sing its’ praises for hours on this blog. Sassy Peach

It’s not a fast-paced book, but the writing is so amazing and the story so intriguing that I couldn’t put it down. Book Hooked Blog


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  1. Sandy says:

    NO I don’t like slower paced fiction! I am way to distracted for that type of read. I have heard lots of good things about this one, but perhaps they are more patient than I.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I can actually see you liking this one. I wonder if it is any good on audio?

  2. Wendy says:

    I’m sorry this one didn’t work so well for you Jackie…it is one of my favorites so far this year…but I don’t mind slower paced books. One of the rare ones where we don’t completely agree :) Thanks for the link to my review!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, We do seem to agree on most books. It is interesting to discover the handful that don’t engage us both.

  3. Shan says:

    This one is next on my list to read. Yours is the first review I’ve read that hasn’t been in love with it, but we can’t love the same books right? Thanks for your review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Shan, I hope that you enjoy it more than I did!

  4. I’m about 20% of the way into this one and really enjoying it so far… Impressed by the strength of the writing.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, Yes – the writing quality is very good. I hope you enjoy the ending as much as the beginning.

  5. I hopped over via Shan’s post from today, I love seeing all the non-US covers on your blog. I prefer some of them so much more.

    This was one of my favorite books so far this year, but I definitely know what you mean about the parts where it slowed. I was a little afraid at a few points that it might not pick up, but thankfully Marra’s writing was really brilliant enough to keep me locked in.

    Glad to have found your blog, I love so many of the books you’re reading and reviewing!


  1. Book Review - A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra

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