Anthony Marra provides such a humming engine for his story, and such a surprisingly intricate path that even the squeamish will find themselves compelled to continue on the rough ride. Things happen in this novel … Everyone must always be inventive to survive, never more so than in their varied uses of hope and memory to recall both their own winding narratives and those who are gone. Hope and memory, after all, are the only things truly left in their control … Marra's true mastery, however, is most evident in his narrative structure. He casts his characters back and forth through time.
Marra’s timeline runs from 1994 to 2004, but the larger story is much, much deeper. This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival … The novel is peppered with these short detours into the pasts or futures of characters who momentarily cross paths with the principals. It’s one of Marra’s ways of holding the value of human wishes against their vanity. There’s a constant impulse to retrieve and affirm what was, though acts of remembrance are themselves evanescent … While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists...these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history … On one level, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together.