Judge: Dave Irwin
Amanda Coplin: The Orchardist
Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
“The Orchardist”by Amanda Coplin and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra share certain similarities, but are vastly different works. Both are debut novels by their respective authors. Both focus on family, showcasing strong, vivid characters. In their differences, however, “The Orchardist,” is a skillfully crafted, plain-spoken quilt of family history, while “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is more a rich tapestry of struggle.
“The Orchardist” is a Bildungsroman, following Talmadge, its simple apple-growing protagonist, from childhood in mid 19th Century Oregon to his death in old age. It then extends slightly to close out the stories of his found family into the next generation. Though not a traditional Western, there are cowboys and Indians, horses, and a celebration of pastoralism and rugged individualism.
A poster child for Stoicism, Talmadge endures the loss of his natural family, the serendipitous acquisition of a found family, and the tragedies that ensure, mostly in silence, with only small gestures to illuminate whatever inner turmoil he feels. His found family includes a deeply damaged young woman, Della, and her niece, the innocent Angelene.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” blends elements of picaresque and historical novels. It is set in Chechnya during the late 20th Century and early 21st Century and its wars between Muslim separatists and Russia.
However, the brutal guerrilla conflict is merely the harsh, unyielding backdrop. The story takes place mostly in a traditional village, its life poisoned by an informer, and the shell of a nearby hospital, struggling to survive the carnage while still fulfilling its mission. Akhmed is a country doctor who would rather have been an artist; Sonja is a deeply flawed but highly skilled surgeon. Between them is Havaa, an orphan wanted by the Russians for reasons that are only slowly revealed.
As the story progresses, we come to understand how Akhmed, Sonja and Havaa, seemingly thrown together, are actually intertwined in ways which they themselves do not understand. Ultimately, we track Havaa from birth to death, through a decidedly non-linear narrative with frequent flashbacks and, interestingly, flash-forwards.
“The Orchardist” adopts an even-tempered, almost Hemingway-esque plainness in tone and language which it rigidly maintains. Its few exceptions, notably a brief diatribe against the media, are jarring, and unfortunately take the reader out of the story. Coplin frequently uses a form of negation, e.g. ‘Talmadge did not think this nor think that,’ then sums up what was actually felt or thought with a general noun. This encourages a kind of non-specific empathy with the characters that on closer examination is somewhat frustrating, as the characters' inner lives consist of only primary colors with little shading or nuance.
“A Constellation” has a more florid tone, opening with an almost surreal scene and encompassing a range that includes tragedy, satire and a large dollop of absurdism. It characters are richly detailed and emotionally engaging.
Between the two, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is the more interestingly constructed novel for how it interweaves the lives of its characters into a compelling narrative. While a more straight-forward narrative for its uncomplicated and unlikely protagonist, the plot twists and turns of “The Orchardist” are sometimes so jarring as to reveal the guiding hand of its author.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” has no such missteps. Marra does an exceptional job of moving the story forward while doling out information in a way that continually forces the reader to reassess the story and its characters. In particular, his use of the flash-forward, unambiguously revealing what will happen to a character in the future, is a brilliant way to create tension. Used sparingly at first, then more frequently as the story progresses to its conclusion, the technique is enlightening, even when the information reveals heartbreaking outcomes.
Ultimately, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is the more skillful, engaging and satisfying novel of the two contenders. While acknowledging the strength and accomplishment of “The Orchardist,” Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is this year’s winner of the Buff Orpington Prize.