Monday, August 19, 2013

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

I'm aware of how little I know about history--particularly the history beyond the United States--yet it's always somewhat surprising when I read a book about a period in history that not only do I know nothing about, I've never even heard about before. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena concerns the civil wars in Chechnya, covering from 1996-2004. Much of the situation is familiar from other countries: poverty and starvation; "disappearances" in the night; neighbors ratting on one another.

Constellation weaves together several individuals' stories. First, there's Akhmed, an failure of a doctor (he'd rather be an artist) who ends up with his neighbor's young daughter after the neighbor, Dokka, is taken to the Landfill. He brings the daughter, Havaa, to a surgeon, Sonja, in a nearby run-down hospital. He's never met the doctor, but he's seen her skilled work, and she reluctantly takes in Havaa and takes on Akhmed as an employee. From there the novel flits back and forth in time, exploring the developing relationship between Akhmed and Sonja, Sonja's relationship with her missing sister, and the relationship between Akhmed's neighbor Kassan and his informant son.

The book covers a terrible time in Chechen history, yet it does so with the right balance, never becoming too tragic or too falsely saccharine. The characters are fully developed and complex, and they're all so very human--no one's a complete hero or villain.

I find I don't have much to say upon finishing, but I cried through the entire ending--something that happens seldom. It doesn't end happily, but it doesn't end hopelessly either, and the mixture of sadness and possibility stayed with me.

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