Before A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
, I knew one thing about Chechnya: how to mispronounce its name. Now I'm an expert on recent Chechnyan history thanks to Anthony Marra and the Google.
I usually love books that make me want to go off on Rabbit Trails of Learning, and this one is no exception. But it's not just that -- I loved SO MANY THINGS about Constellation
Don't get me wrong, it's hard to read at times, just because of the harsh setting (conflict-ridden Chechnya) and pervasiveness of war. We get to know a generous handful of characters, and I found myself loving almost all of them, but war is almost a character itself, wrapping itself around the everyday lives of those people, and I had to take breaks every now and then. There's a brief but awful torture scene maybe halfway through the novel that I should have skimmed. Nothing is gratuitous but it's still pretty harsh. It's war. Ultimately, though, there is enough hope, enough light let into the pages, that it's uplifting despite all of that.
The narrative starts in 2004, as a father is disappeared and his daughter goes into hiding. It loosely follows the attempt to keep her hidden, but Marra plays with the timeline, popping in and out of different points in a ten-year time span. This could be a mess, but there's a header at the beginning of each chapter that clearly marks the year being covered in that chapter, and it works.
One of the things I liked the most about Constellation
is the way everything, and everyone, eventually intersects. Marra focuses on three people, but there are so many characters inside this book, and they wander in and out of each others' lives throughout those ten years, creating ripples that reach into the future. It's a web of a novel, and it's lovely.
And the prose! There are so many beautiful turns of phrase in Constellation
that I eventually gave up highlighting my favorites. If I had been reading a print book, and not an e-galley, my copy would have looked like some sort of bizarre basketweaving-with-text experiment.
Yes, it's safe to say I capslock loved this one. Way to start a career with a bang -- I'll definitely keep an eye out for Marra's work in the future.