For a first-time novelist, Anthony Marra has a lot going for him. Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Marra holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Pushcart Prize and the Narrative Prize. If that isn’t enough to convince you of Marra’s extraordinary talents, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has already been awarded the 2012 Whiting Writers’ Award.
Set in contemporary Chechnya—a republic in southern Russia—the novel opens with 8-year-old Havaa hiding in the freezing-cold forest. She is forced to witness the burning down of her home and the abduction of her fingerless father by Russian soldiers. When Havaa’s father’s lifelong friend and neighbor Akhmed discovers her, he decides that the only guarantee for her safety is to take her to a physician he has only heard rumors about: Dr. Sonja Rabina.
For Sonja, her day-to-day life is a furious routine of staying hopped up on methamphetamines, running the town’s bombed-out hospital and desperately searching for her heroin-addicted sister, Natasha. Akhmed—a doctor as well, although his passion lies in portraiture—offers his assistance to Sonja, in exchange for her harboring Havaa. The Russians have already begun hunting down the girl, and Akhmed has sworn to protect her, for reasons deeper than Sonja initially suspects.
Marra delicately weaves together several narratives against the backdrop of this bleak, war-ravaged country. Over five days filled with dying rebels, mysterious black-market con men, friends-turned-traitors and ghostly visitors, Marra allows the stories of Sonja, Natasha, Akhmed and Havaa’s father to intersect in incredibly imaginative ways. Readers will become convinced that each subsequent piece in the puzzle of Marra’s narrative is not coincidence but surely must be fate.
If you’re a fan of beautifull[Wed Aug 20 08:47:54 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. y composed, internationally set fiction like The Tiger’s Wife or The Orphan Master’s Son, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a worthy next pick. The Whiting Writers’ Award selection committee dubbed Marra’s ambitions “Tolstoyan,” and there could not be a better word to describe his all-too-real cast of characters. This is an exquisite debut.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Is there anything more nerve-racking than publishing a first novel? For authors and publishers alike, it’s a nail-biting moment of sink or swim. Here are 10 debuts from the year (so far!) that signal the start of promising careers.
THE HOUSE GIRL
By Tara Conklin
For fans of: Tracy Chevalier, Kathryn Stockett, Geraldine Brooks
First line: “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.”
About the book: The stories of a runaway slave and a modern-day lawyer intersect in a quiet, emotional and thought-provoking tale.
About the author: Conklin worked as a corporate lawyer before moving to Seattle with her husband and children to write this novel.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.
By Roger Hobbs
For fans of: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dan Brown
First line: “Hector Moreno and Jerome Ribbons sat in the car on the ground level of the Atlantic Regency Hotel Casino parking garage, sucking up crystal meth with a rolled-up five spot, a lighter and a crinkled length of tin foil.”
About the book: This thrilling heist novel is full of nonstop action and includes incredible detail on everything from casino operations to armored cars—as well as an unforgettable, amoral antihero.
About the author: Just 24 years old, Hobbs finished the novel while still attending Reed College in Portland.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.
THE SUPREMES AT EARL'S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT
By Edward Kelsey Moore
For fans of: Maeve Binchy, Terry McMillan, Fannie Flagg
First line: “I woke up hot that morning. Came out of a sound sleep with my face tingling and my nightgown stuck to my body.”
About the book: The 40-year friendship of three women from the small town of Plainview, Indiana, is celebrated in a big-hearted story that’s full of laughs—and inspired by the “smart, and interesting, and not foolish” women in Moore’s own life.
About the author: Moore was an accomplished cellist and college professor when he decided to try writing at the age of 40 (he’s now 52).
Read more: Interview from our March issue.
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA
By Anthony Marra
For fans of: Téa Obreht, Adam Johnson, Jonathan Safran Foer
First line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.”
About the book: Set against the backdrop of the Chechen Wars, an exhausted doctor fights to protect a young girl whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers for a crime he didn’t commit.
About the author: Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Marra holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has lived in Eastern Europe.
Read more: Review from our May issue.
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
By Helene Wecker
For fans of: Susanna Clarke, Deborah Harkness, Michael Chabon
First line: “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.”
About the book: A golem, a jinni and the evil wizard that links them star in Wecker’s imaginative blend of Jewish and Arabic folklore. The supernatural characters are grounded by the novel’s detailed, vibrant setting in 1899 New York City, where immigrants and wealthy citizens mingle on teeming streets.
About the author: Wecker spent seven years working in the corporate sector before attending Columbia University’s writing program.
Read more: Interview from our May issue.
THE OTHER TYPIST
By Suzanne Rindell
For fans of: Amor Towles, ZoÃ« Heller, M.L. Stedman
First line: “They said the typewriter would unsex us.”
About the book: Rose, a prim and proper typist working in 1920s Manhattan, forms a friendship with mysterious, fun-loving Odalie that borders on obsession. With Rose as its sly and slightly unreliable narrator, this suspenseful story will keep you guessing.
About the author: A former employee of a literary agency, Rindell is finishing up a Ph.D. in modernist literature at Rice University.
Read more: Review from our May issue.
THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON
By Elizabeth L. Silver
For fans of: Lionel Shriver, Gillian Flynn, John Grisham
First line: “In this world, you are either good or evil.”
About the book: We know from page one that Noa is guilty of murder. Silver’s psychologically acute narrative probes the all-important question of why—and provides a breathtaking answer.
About the author: Silver earned her legal knowledge as a judicial clerk and research attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She also has an M.A. in literature.
Read more: Review from our June issue.
THE GHOST BRIDEBy Yangsze Choo
For fans of: Lisa See, Eowyn Ivey, Jamie Ford, Erin Morgenstern
First line: “One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.”
About the book: In 1893 Malaysia, Li Lan finds herself betrothed to a ghost—and in love with another man. Her quest for freedom takes her through the land of the dead.
About the author: Choo got a degree in sociology from Harvard before launching her writing career.
Read more: Interview in this issue.
By Kevin Maher
For fans of: Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Haigh, Nick Hornby
First line: “When Jack died I was real young, younger than I am now, and I said, in a temper, that I would never let it happen again.”
About the book: This ambitious coming-of-age story set in 1980s Dublin is told in the memorable voice of Jim Finnegan, the youngest of six in a working-class family.
About the author: From Dublin himself, Maher now lives in England and is a film critic for several papers, including the Guardian.
Read more: Review in this issue.
THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES
By Hanya Yanagihara
For fans of: Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver
First line: “I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest.”
About the book: Told through the annotated journals of Dr. Norton Perina, this sprawling tale has an old-fashioned feel. Perina has discovered the key to longevity on a remote island—but at what price?
About the author: Yanagihara is an editor for Condé Nast Travel—which explains Perina’s fantastic descriptions of island paradise.
Read more: Review in this issue.
Three of the best books of 2013 are now available in paperback—and guaranteed to delight your reading group. Spanning the globe from Texas to Italy to Chechnya, these memorable stories are sure to spark discussion.
A WILD WEST DYNASTY
An old-fashioned tale of the West with all the trappings—Indian raids, oil booms and plenty of shoot-’em-up action—The Son by Philipp Meyer is at once a well-crafted work of literary fiction and a wild journey through the Lone Star State. When Eli McCullough, 13, is captured by Comanches, he’s forced to assimilate and develops into a formidable warrior. After he re-enters the world of white men, he becomes a Texas Ranger and establishes a sprawling ranch in South Texas. Along the way, he has adventures aplenty, some of them amorous (involving the wife of a judge), many of them bloody (a Mexican family is slaughtered under his orders). The novel is narrated in part by Eli, who, at the age of 100, is addressed by everyone as “the Colonel.” Sharing the storytelling duties are his weak-willed son, Peter, who’s considered a failure, and great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne, who fights to keep the McCullough dynasty intact in contemporary times. Reminiscent of grand Western sagas like Lonesome Dove, Meyer’s expertly written novel has the makings of a classic.
THE WEIGHT OF WAR
Anthony Marra’s outstanding debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, tells the story of a war orphan and the doctors who try to save her. During the Second Chechen War, 8-year-old Havaa stands by helplessly as her father, accused of a crime he had nothing to do with, is taken away by Russian soldiers, who burn down their home for good measure. Akhmed, a neighbor, finds Havaa hiding in the woods and, risking his own life, takes her to a run-down hospital where he hopes she’ll be looked after. Overworked and exhausted, the hospital’s only doctor, Sonja Rabina, has doubts about taking the girl in, but Akhmed convinces her to let Havaa stay on a provisional basis. As the book progresses, connections between the characters come to light, revealing a chilling network of betrayal. Marra’s depiction of war-torn Chechnya is all too accurate, yet he balances the bloodshed with moments of humor and the creation of characters who feel real to the reader. This is a landmark first novel from a writer worth watching.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
A finalist for the National Book Award, Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, is set in the 1970s and narrated by a young artist called Reno. Led by an obsession with motorcycles, Reno arrives in New York City hoping to channel her love of motion and speed into art. She becomes romantically involved with sculptor Sandro Valera, whose prominent family manufactures motorcycles and tires in Italy. Their famous bike—the Moto Valera—provides inspiration for Reno, who stages an art performance of sorts by racing one on the Bonneville Salt Flats. During a visit to Italy with Sandro, Reno joins up with a group of anarchic protesters only to find herself entangled in a murder. Navigating the worlds of politics and art proves trickier than she imagined, and she soon learns the meaning of betrayal. Reno proves to be a remarkable heroine—a courageous yet vulnerable young woman who isn’t afraid of taking risks. Kushner’s inventive style and obvious delight in language make this an unforgettable read.
Marra's debut novel places readers in Chechnya during its decadelong conflict with Russia and offers up an authentic, heartbreaking tale of intertwining relationships during wartime. The narrative centers on three people: eight-year-old Havaa, whose father has been "disappeared" by Russian forces; her neighbor Akhmed, a failed doctor who tries to hide her in the only operational hospital he knows; and Sonja, the area's last remaining surgeon, who is trying desperately to find her missing sister. As he shifts in time through the years of the two Chechen wars, Marra confidently weaves those plots together, and several more besides, giving each character a rich backstory that intersects, often years down the line, with the others. Though sometimes difficult to digest--episodes of casual violence and savage brutality punctuate the otherwise graceful prose--the novel's tone remains optimistic, and its characters retain vast depths of humanity (and even humor) in spite of their bleak circumstances. VERDICT Marra's moving novel will appeal to admirers of Tea Obreht's similarly war-torn novel The Tiger's Wife, but his story relies less on magical realism and more on the seemingly random threads binding us together. Highly recommended for all readers of literary fiction.--Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ[Page 75]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Marra's sobering, complex debut intertwines the stories of a handful of characters at the end of the second war in bleak, apocalyptic Chechnya. Though the novel spans 11 years, the story traces five days in 2004 following the arrest of Dokka, a villager from the small Muslim village of Eldar. His eight-year-old daughter escapes, and is rescued by Dokka's friend Akhmed, the village doctor, who entrusts her to the care of Sonja, the lone remaining doctor at a nearby hospital. Why Akhmed feels responsible for Haava and chooses Sonja, an ethnic Russian keeping a vigil for her missing sister, as her guardian is one of many secrets; years of Soviet rule and the chaos of war have left these people unaccustomed to honesty. Marra, a Stegner Fellow, writes dense prose full of elegant detail about the physical and emotional destruction of occupation and war. Marra's deliberate withholding of narrative detail makes the characters opaque, until all is revealed, in a surprisingly hopeful way, but there's pleasure in reconstructing the meaning in reverse. As Akhmed says to Sonja, "The whole book is working toward the last page." Agent: Janet Silver, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (May)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC