A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali
Islam Quintet Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00FEZ2432
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
(Original Publ: 1993)
Source: NetGalley

This novel intrigued me and held my interest primarily from its exotic nature to a Western reader relatively unfamiliar with the time period, particularly from the Muslim point of view. I studied Medieval Spanish history in course for school years ago, but not up to this point of the Renaissance period of ‘Reconquest’ under the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella.

It is immediately apparent that Ali writes nonfiction essays and screenplays predominantly, in many respects this novel is a mixture of the two set around a fictionalized plot of one family’s tragic destruction as microcosm of the Reconquest as a whole. Ali focuses the story around key historic details both political and of daily life, writing most eloquently when describing the mundane and quotidian, such as cooking a dish, or when describing moments of tenderness and eroticism. In contrast, while relaying large dramatic moments, Ali employs matter-of-fact brevity. The result is a flow that feels a great deal like watching a film, or a documentary re-enactment of events. In similar film manner the focus of scenes flows back and forth between characters with complete omniscience, favoring no single character in the novel overall, but intimately zoomed in to each for their moment in the camera’s eye.

The resulting style may not be for everyone’s reading taste, but I didn’t mind it whatsoever, in a way it gave the events related on the small scale of this one family seem more grandiose and general for the society as a whole, splitting focus between characters with varied pasts, secrets, and points of view. What is interesting is that although on the face of it the events in the story feature a clash of religions, particular theological faith has very little to do with it. Really it is a clash of general cultures. The majority of characters have either a general faith in an almighty power, willing to accept the Muslim version or the Christian as required, or have no faith whatsoever. Instead, the events are reduced to a matter of conqueror and conquered. Of destroying a particular culture and wiping it out and the decision of whether to give into assimilation or fighting to preserve a culture and religious heritage.

This treatment of a complex mixture of religion and general secular culture into a simplified form makes the point that these conflicts in history are, at their heart, ultimately independent of any theological issues. However, the treatment also reduces the characters, particularly the chief villain, into one-dimensional caricatures of cruelty. The novel thus certainly has its flaws, and those demanding happy endings to their stories should obviously stay away, but for those interested in an introduction to this period and the type of conflict that continues to this day, it would be worth reading.

Four Stars out of Five