I found myself engulfed by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
It opens on a disaster: A house up in flame, a father kidnapped, a young girl hiding in the woods with a suitcase full of souvenirs. A loving neighbor, the father's friend, squirrels her away to a nearby hospital where he intends to convince a legendary doctor to take her in. It is 2004 and Chechnya is again gripped by war. Every night, countless Chechens are "disappeared". No one is safe, not even the girl.
The novel covers five days in the present through the perspectives of a connected yet diverse set of characters in backward, war-torn Chechnya. Their pained histories collide and intertwine, some in ways so unlikely it seems fate must be at play. In those flashbacks, author Anthony Marra develops the characters so skillfully, it's hard to believe this is a debut work.
One of my favorite things about Marra's storytelling is the way he extends even minor characters. While much of the novel spans past and present, some instances involve a small leap forward, a peek at how the life of a cameo turns out. It gives the reader a peek at the hope some individuals represent, even if the characters are oblivious.
Another beautiful detail is the minimal graphic timeline that leads into each chapter. Its inclusion provides an elegant guide to time that frees Marra to focus on plot, not setting. Plus, it's easy on the eyes.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It may even be one of the best books I've read, period. Please give it a try.
There is little comfort in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Life is difficult, at times hopeless. The characters yearn for peace, loved ones, connection to the outside world. Their meals are mostly gruel. Deep in the book, one man's fleeting wish for manti struck me for its humility. The dish is a warm, hearty classic of Caucasian cuisine. In a life that leaves no room for hope, I believe manti might at least provide some consolation.
BEEF MANTI (DUMPLINGS)
Makes a lot
- 1 pound ground beef (or other ground meat)
- 1 medium onion, grated
- 1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1 egg
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2/3 cup broth (I used some beef bouillon dissolved in boiling water)
- Three pats of butter
- 4.5-inch square wonton wrappers, cut in half
- Water, to seal
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt
- 1/3 teaspoon garlic paste
- Salt, to taste
- Sweet paprika
In a medium bowl, combine ground beef, onion, parsley, egg, salt and pepper. Mix lightly with hands until combined. This can be done up to one day in advance.
Preheat oven to 325ºF. Lightly oil a round baking dish.
Assemble manti: Place about half a teaspoon of the meat mixture in the middle of a strip of wonton wrapper, wet outer edges of wrapper and pinch closed, leaving the portion containing the meat open. Keep unused wrappers under a damp paper towel to prevent them drying out. See a video of how I did it below.
Arrange assembled manti in a round pattern around the dish. Parbake for 12 minutes. Remove dish from oven, pour broth over dumplings and top with pats of butter. Bake for another 15 minutes. If, at this point, the exposed edges of the dumplings are not golden, place under broiler on high for 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove dish from oven and allow to cool slightly.
In a small bowl, whip the yogurt, garlic paste and salt until smooth. Pour over dish of dumplings. Sprinkle sweet paprika over top and enjoy while it's still steaming hot.
Adapted from My Barbarian Table