A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

15797715This is a difficult book for me to summarize or review. That’s not a bad thing; it is well-written, with interesting characters, and the type of historical background that I like. But it is dense, and it takes quite a while until the pieces of the story start to fall into place. Nevertheless, even though it sometimes took some work to keep reading, it was a satisfying experience.

“Life: A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

The story has six very different main characters, mirroring the six characteristics in the definition of life given here. Each plays a vital part in this book, and each comes to life. They are ordinary people who live in and endure extraordinary circumstances, forced to make decisions that can mean life or death for themselves and the people around them. Consequently, they have all made good and bad decisions. Sometimes, they are aware of the consequences their actions would have; other times, they aren’t. So I was taken on an emotional rollercoaster ride, experiencing both their bittersweet ups and tragic downs.

A small drawback was that in addition to all the main characters, there were also quite a few minor characters. Combining this with numerous jumps in time—mainly between 1994 and 2004—meant that I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of events and people and how they were all connected. It helped me to read up on Chechen history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to better understand what exactly was going on.

This book is a very impressive debut novel. Thankfully, the often overwhelming sadness of the story itself was interspersed with moments of hope and humanity. It was satisfying to see how believably the threads of the different stories came together in the end. If you enjoyed Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, I think you’ll enjoy this (considerably longer) book as well.

*I received a copy of the book from the publisher.



  1. I really loved this book, especially because there was hope despite the sadness. I thought it was beautifully written too. I’ll definitely have to check out The Cellist of Sarajevo!

    • I’m a bit upset with myself that I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped. While it didn’t work that well for me, there’s lots to admire in this book. And you’re right that there is definitely some hope at the end.

  2. Sometimes mood and timing don’t always work out when we read a book, right? I can remember certain books where I was grumpy throughout the whole thing. I always wondered about this book because the premise sounds very interesting.

  3. I really can’t wait to read this book( even though I have obviously been waiting). I’m a little afraid now, though, that I’m going to get confused. I will just have to make sure I’m ready to concentrate when I pick it up, which is not always easy around here, but does sometimes happen. Maybe a good camping book. 🙂

    • Naomi, I’ve wanted to read this book since last year, and only got to it now. Don’t let my review scare you off; it wasn’t the best review I’ve ever written and I think the timing wasn’t right for me. I was too impatient to finish this book when I read it. I think you will enjoy this book! Plenty of people enjoyed it much more than I did! If you don’t mind books with serious and slightly depressing subject matters when you’re on vacation, you’ll be fine!

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