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Book Review: Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra

This was Powell’s Indiespensable #39 (yes, it is spelled that way-the focus is on independent, or ‘indie’). In this longer than typical book review I’ve captured four things about the book; the word craft, the topic, the structure, and the take-away.

First, the topic.

The book is set in Chechnya during the wars and covers five days but includes flashbacks going back several years, more on how that was managed in a bit.  It’s not a war book, but rather a book very much about people.  In the Powell’s interview (each Indiespensable shipment, they can also be found online) Marra is asked why he wrote about Chechnya during the wars.  Fair question, the topic seems beyond challenging for a novel writer.  He seemed to duck the question for a bit, then admitted a personal interest sparked while a student in Russia a couple months after Anna Politkovskaya (a human rights activist, journalist of the Chechen conflict, and critic of Vladimir Putin) had been murdered.  After learning about it through nonfiction, Marra sought out novels.  He said “I couldn't find a single novel written in English that was set in the period of the two most recent Chechen wars. I came to write this novel because it was the type of book that I wanted to read, that I wanted to pick up on the shelf of a bookstore. But it wasn't there yet.”

Second the word craft.
To embark on describing life in and around the Chechen conflict in a novel requires coming equipped with excellent and durable skills with the written word.  Marra’s descriptive acumen and artful talent with assembling words is distinct and impressive.  Each author has their own flair in how they combine words to both communicate and engage the reader.  I’m reminded of the amount of information Douglas Adams could convey in a few words, even if it was as seemingly innocent as attaching a word normally used to describe human action to an inanimate object (“The refrigerator lurked in the corner”).

When he needed to convey the terse, bleak, resigned setting of the book Marra eliminates the extraneous and conveys what he means. Early in the book Marra sets the scene of a town run down by war, puts two characters- an old man and an 8 year old girl- in the middle of snowy road, centers their attention on the burned down remains of the girls house (torched by the government secret police for perceived crimes), and delivers this short dialog, foreshadowing everything to come.
“That’s my house.” Her voice broke their silence and he heard it as he would the only sound in an empty corridor.
“Don’t think of it like that,” he said.
“Like what?”
“Like it’s still yours.”

Third, the structure.
With the events in “real time” in the book cover five days, the content incorporates events from 1994 to 2004.  The mechanic employed to pull this off was a simple timeline listing the 10 years across the page at the beginning of each chapter with one year in bold.  The ‘action’ happens in the 5 day “real time” chapters, the flashbacks explain how the people came to be where and what they are.  But these don’t happen in a linear fashion, its more circular.  Without revealing too much; a person, place, or simple objects may get mentioned, then expanded on in a flashback, then more present day growth occurs, then more expansion in the past- connecting people, places and things- looping around one another until the ball of yarn is whole.

Fourth, and finally, the take away.
Novels are first and foremost entertainment.  But to be simply entertained by the imagining of what life was like during a decade of war and insurgency isn’t anything a person reading this book sets out to do.  Marra executes on the concept of taking a nonfictional topic and through a novel, informing and engaging the reader in a fashion distinct from how a history book, journalistic report, or documentary story functions.  The takeaway is when confronting topics that could otherwise be left untouched, novels can teach and inform.

About Powell’s Indiespensable.
Indiespensable is a curated subscription book service from Powell’s books in Portland, Oregon.  People who live and think books choose one book every six weeks or so, do special printings, interview the author and have them sign the books that are sent to subscribers- with little gifts included), see http://www.powells.com/indiespensable/  I mention it because that’s how I got this book.  I would not have found it on my own- but that’s the point.



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