Friday, September 30, 2016

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

Have you ever looked at a painting and had your imagination so captured by its beauty and depth that the brushstrokes disappeared and you felt a part of something real? Like a true artist, Scott Stambach pulls off a similar feat in his stellar debut, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, making you feel as if a voyeur, a silent fellow inmate (for it seems more prison than hospital) or comrade to our eponymous hero, equally trapped within the cold white walls of the only home he's ever known.

From the publisher: “Seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko is a life-long resident of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. For the most part, every day is exactly the same for Ivan, which is why he turns everything into a game, manipulating people and events around him for his own amusement. Until Polina arrives. She steals his books. She challenges his routine. The nurses like her. She is exquisite. Soon, he cannot help being drawn to her and the two forge a romance that is tenuous and beautiful and everything they never dared dream of. Before, he survived by being utterly detached from things and people. Now, Ivan wants something more: Ivan wants Polina to live.”

I loved this book. Touted as The Fault in Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ivan’s tale of woe, love and hope is imbued with his irrepressible wit, wisdom and cynicism. Written as if a found memoir or journal, Ivan’s early humble confession quickly ensnares our heart and imagination; “I need to share this place with you, Reader. I need to share my friends who I would never admit were friends. I need to share with you my beloved, whom I would never admit I loved. For if I don’t document our world right now…we will risk fading into the foam of history without mention.” With a host of wonderfully three-dimensional, nuanced and complex characters, the author effortlessly it seems gives the tale the gravitas and believability, as well as palpable emotion, you’d expect from a real memoir instead of a work of fiction.

“I’m seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children.” Ivan and his ‘friends’ are products of the Chernobyl disaster (though never directly named), bearing the physical burdens caused by the carelessness of men. Ivan describes himself as hideous with a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces; he only has one arm and the hand attached to it 2 fingers and a thumb, and the ‘rest of his appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort.’ Yet his mind and wit are all there and then some, both a blessing and a curse, for he’s fully-cognizant of his limitations and deprivations unlike his fellow residents. Ivan's intellect is fully developed thanks to reading all the Russian literary greats. The books, kindness, and in-depth conversations on a multitude of subjects are thanks to his nurse and pseudo-mother, Nurse Natalya. By contrast, Polina (Juliet to his Romeo) doesn’t belong; beautiful, able-bodied, and cheeky. Polina wasn’t just his equal, she was his greater. Newly arrived at the hospital, Ivan sees her as an interloper, an enigma, even a nemesis, but slowly friendship and camaraderie become love, and start us on our sad tale for Polina is dying.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a memorable love story where the heartache is a known fact from the tale’s onset; a constant blip in the not-too-distant horizon to which we draw ever closer with every page. Nonetheless, readers quickly find that death and sorrow are but an infinitesimal part of this heartwarming, heart-wrenching and poignant tale. Intelligent, funny, and uncompromisingly honest, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a must-read novel that ensures our narrator and hero that not through statues or great deeds, but through simple words on a page, he and his beloved will live forever.