MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. It's not every day that an author writes his first novel after winning five literary prizes, but Anthony Marra has done just that. And reviewer Meg Wolitzer says the book lived up to all her expectations.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Some of the best writing advice I ever got was from an editor who told me that a reader needs to want to go there. What he meant is that you should make the world of your story inviting. It needs to be a place where readers want to linger. I was thinking about that as I was reading Anthony Marra's amazing book, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." The story takes place in Chechnya. It's full of hopelessness and torture and war and land mines.
The thing is, I did want to go there. The book is so good, the writing and the characters are so compelling, I stayed in it. Listen to this first sentence. (Reading) On the morning after the feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.
Havaa is this incredibly bright little girl, living in the most unlivable circumstances. The feds have cut off her father's fingers during an interrogation. Now, they're back to take him, in the middle of the night. Havaa hides, but it's clear they want to take her, too. So her neighbor, Akhmed, brings her to the city hospital, hoping she'll be taken in.
That's pretty much the plot. The novel belongs mostly to Akhmed, the neighbor, and also to Sonja, the one doctor still working at the almost entirely equipment-free hospital. When I started this book, I kept nervously trying to rely on Wikipedia. I thought if I understood the complex history of the region, if I was fortified by the details of the first and second Chechen wars, if I knew the role of Stalin at the root of all this, I would be prepared.
As if. Nothing could have prepared me for what happens in this book's broken landscape, but that's OK. I realized it's better to come to it as a naked reader in the wilderness of the novel - and you should, too. Trust this writer because he's created such an accomplished and affecting book.
It's not perfect. Every once in a while, you can feel Marra trying a little too hard to tie loose ends together, and I don't blame him. The material he's working with really defies order and reason, but he doesn't need to try so hard.The lives lived in this novel can seem unbearable, but Anthony Marra has described them in such passionate, extraordinary prose that they become not only writable but also highly, deeply readable.
CORNISH: The book is "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her most recent novel is "The Interestings."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.