In The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, Scott Stambach presents a hilarious, heart-wrenching, and powerful debut novel about an orphaned boy who finds love and hope in a Russian hospital after Chernobyl.
Seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko is a life-long resident of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. Born deformed yet mentally keen with a frighteningly sharp wit, strong intellect, and a voracious appetite for books, Ivan is forced to interact with the world through the vivid prism of his mind. 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. That is, until a new resident named Polina arrives at the hospital. At first Ivan resents Polina. She steals his books. She challenges his routine. The nurses like her. She is exquisite. But 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.
Stambach's impressive, well-structured debut is set at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. Seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko has lived there all his life. Due to the Chernobyl disaster just before his birth, Ivan has no legs, one arm, a hand with a thumb and two fingers, and a droopy face that makes it difficult to speak or smile. Unlike many of his fellow patients, Ivan is self-aware and stubborn, as he describes in one of his amusing short lists: "There are two things I've learned... (A) I can eventually... learn to do just about anything with only one arm... and (B) if there is a God, then I should thank Him for my thumb, since it is the only thing that makes (A) possible." Ivan's clever, bleak observations about life at the hospital an underfunded post-Soviet hell mitigated only by the inexhaustible kindness of the maternal nurse Natalya Beneshenko make up the book's first half. In the second, he narrates his love affair with Polina Pushkin, a recently orphaned 16-year-old dying of leukemia. Through their romance built on mischief, Russian literature, and a need for recognition, Ivan begins to grapple with his fears and take responsibility for his future. Stambach's surprising, empathetic novel takes on heavy themes of illness, suffering, religion, patience, and purpose, with a balanced mix of humor and heart.
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Tremendous book! This is literary fiction at its best. Highly recommended.