One More Wonderful Book of 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra (Hogarth)

I spent a good part of the last two days of 2013 reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Although I’m not sure why, this book was on my radar before it came out, and I bought it in hardback within a few days of its release, certain somehow that that would be the right choice. Right, indeed.

The best word I can come up with to describe this book is luminous. The prose, the characters, the plot have a glow about them. That is not to suggest that Constellation is a happy book. Rather, this is a book that radiates truth so that, even though much of it is sad, one finds a beauty in its precision. Marra has taken a difficult subject, life in Chechenya during the decade from 1994 to 2004, and explored it in a way that does justice to its topic and characters, granting them a well-deserved dignity that is free of pretension.

The constellation at this book’s heart is earthly, not heavenly, a constellation composed of intersecting moments in a series of lives. None of the characters fully understands the way he or she is related to others, but Marra allows us to see what they cannot: an outline of meaning that rises from their combined choices. The omniscience works here because it does not judge. The narrator isn’t telling us a simple tale of right and wrong (though, of course, right and wrong are the bones it’s built upon). Rather, he’s broadening our field of vision in a way that lets us bear and understand what might otherwise be unbearable and incomprehensible.

I don’t want to provide a plot summary here; readers deserve the experience of moving—innocently? pure-heartedly? virginally? un-forewarnedly?—through the plot as it unfolds. Suffice it to say that people struggle to do their best, often falling short, and the Marra’s gift to readers is letting them travel beside the characters as they make their choices. This is a book to pick up when you want a rich meal, one that will make demands of you and will return every bit as much as it demands. Read it when you have time and presence to savor and to wrestle. This isn’t a book you’ll use as escape, but one in which you will find yourself arriving somewhere absolutely new and necessary.

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