Friday, July 8, 2016

Book Review: "The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko" by Scott Stambach

"...from what little I know of the outside world, I am fairly certain that my comrades and I live in hell. For most of us, the hell is in our bodies; for others, the hell is in our heads. And there is no mistaking that, for each of us, hell is in the empty, clinical, perfectly adequate, smudgy, off-white brick walls that hold us in here. In spite of my intelligence, I'm forced to accept that I'm one of the lucky ones."

Ivan Isaenko has lived at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus since he was born 17 years ago. While he suffers from significant physical disabilities, his intellect and his sense of humor are sharp, so he spends his monotonous days reading any book his favorite nurse, Natalya, brings him, and he keenly observes what is going on and being discussed around him, often faking a catatonic state so he can eavesdrop on conversations among doctors and nurses. And when those activities don't satisfy him, he uses his condition to manipulate those around him, much to the significant aggravation of the nurses and the hospital's cantankerous director.

Given his disabilities, Ivan knows he'll never live the type of life he reads about in books or watches on old television shows during TV time each day. He never knew his parents, since they abandoned him shortly after birth. He knows he'll never fall in love or have a relationship with a woman. Most of all, he knows he'll never leave the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, unless it's after his death. But if it's any consolation, he has the whole system in the hospital figured out—he can tell before almost anyone which of his fellow patients have less than three months to live based on the medicines they're allotted.

And then Polina arrives. Polina is beautiful. Polina once had parents, a boyfriend, a life outside the hospital, but after her parents' death and her leukemia diagnosis, she has nothing. Ivan is immediately bewitched by her beauty, her intelligence, and her spirit, but he is too afraid to even look at her for fear she will be repulsed by his physical condition. Yet little by little, the two people who decided to never let anyone in begin to trust each other, and develop a relationship of sorts which challenges them both. Suddenly, Ivan has transformed from someone who never really wanted anything to someone who wants one thing only: he wants Polina to live.

As you might imagine, a book taking place in a hospital for gravely ill children definitely has some emotional undertones, but for the most part, Scott Stambach is careful to keep the story from becoming too maudlin. There is more than enough sly humor, talk (and descriptions) of blood and other bodily secretions, obsession with sex (much like you'd expect from any 17-year-old), and fighting against authority to lighten the mood now and again. While some of the characters are little more than caricatures of typical Soviet Bloc-type people, Ivan, Polina, Natalya, and, to a smaller extent, the hospital director, are fascinating, complex characters. This is a funny, sarcastic, thought-provoking, and moving book, and you find yourself becoming invested in Ivan's story even as you know how it will unfold.

I thought the book started fairly slowly and took a while to pick up steam; while reading the first quarter of the book or so I wondered if I should keep reading. But once Polina appeared in the story, the plot really took shape, and Ivan went from becoming a quirky, slightly annoying (yet sympathetic) character to a fully realized character, one who was very interesting. Being a sap, I definitely teared up at times reading this, but it wasn't a depressing read, just an enjoyable, sweet one. (The one thing that makes me bristle, however, is the marketing ploy that calls this book The Feault in Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. No, no, a thousand times, no.)

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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