Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a beautifully written but heartbreaking book about Chechnya in the 20 years between 1994 and 2004. There are several sets of main characters - two sisters, a child and her father's best friend, that man and his sick wife, an elderly man and his son - that cross over into relationships with other characters. The character development is good.

The dialog is believable. The descriptions of life in Chechnya and of the choices real people living there had to make can be very hard to read, but this is a beautiful book if you can deal with those realities. The book contains great moments of despair and hope. The plot does rely a little heavily on coincidence, although most of the coincidences are not revealed until the book's final chapters.

The author jumps around in time, but a helpful timeline appears at the beginning of each chapter. The author has an odd habit of suddenly revealing a character's situation years into the future, at times acting as a spoiler to his own plot, but these passages also reassure the reader that at least some people had futures after the atrocities.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will make a thoughtful reader consider many issues - what it means to be family, the importance of home, how ordinary people survive and make decisions in terrible circumstances. One of the sisters, a doctor, has a useful but shady contact in Grozny whose least-liked brother Alu she saved in the first war (p. 188):

"Poor, berated Alu, whose name was beaten more than a donkey's ass. Six months after they met she had learned his brother's name was Ruslan, but she would always think of him as Alu's brother. She knew he had amassed a small fortune smuggling arms, heroin, and luxury goods for warlords, and had used that fortune to rebuild his ancestral village after the first war. ... When his ancestral village was destroyed again in the second war, she knew he had paid passage to Georgia for his parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, thirty-seven in total, even the oft-cursed Alu, plus the neighbors on either side of every uncle, cousin, and in-law, one hundred and seventy-four in total, where the lived in the Tbilisi apartment block he had purchased for the occasion, neighbor by neighbor, his ancestral village saved for a second and final time."

It can be a challenge to finish a book about a difficult subject, but I definitely recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It was hard to read at times, but I'm glad I read it. The Galesburg Public Library has the book in regular fiction and large print, and as an audiobook and ebook.

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