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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena    by Anthony Marra order for
Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2014 (2013)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

This is a heartrending novel of what might have happened in war-torn Chechnya. With food and supplies lacking, houses burned and people in despair, betrayal looms large because it can be a pathway to survival. How much can a person bear, either physically or mentally, before loyalty to family and friends is discounted. After betrayal, how is it possible to live with oneself, how is it possible for one's family to live with the repercussions? And finally, how is it possible to keep up hope?

All these are considered in this story, which involves a very small number of people whose fate is intertwined in a very complex yet simple way. Sonja, an M.D., has come back from London to search for her missing sister and is immediately moved to help in the partial remains of the hospital, where doctors, equipment and all help have flown. Akhmed, a less-than-successful medical student, is the neighbor of an eight-year-old village girl who has seen her father abducted and her home set afire in the middle of the night. When he brings the child to the hospital as a refuge and offers to help there, no one is satisfied with the arrangement, but in the next five days they will all discover how they belong to each other.

This is a powerful story, well thought out and interestingly told. We are sent back and forth in time to get the background information we need. The descriptions of how people survived in these circumstances and the characters themselves all come to life as we read. Yet despite the grim hardship and feelings of loss, there are many moments of humor, as if, by dwelling on the absurdity of the situation, people have found a way to help themselves go on living. This is a keeper.

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