Ivan Isaenko has spent as long as he can remember as a resident of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. Born deformed, Ivan seventeen years of life have been put to use struggling to adapt to do basic daily activities, such as feed and dress himself. His mind is sharp and cunning, and so for much of his life he’s turned to books and adult conversation to keep himself sharp, while also limiting his time reflecting on the reality of his situation. He knows he will never leave the hospital, so what good is it to hope? He spends his days faking catatonia and reading until Polina arrives. Polina is around his age and suffering from leukemia. When she arrives, she is dark-haired, fair, and wearing an American band t-shirt. Her parents are both dead, and as a sick child she is now a ward of the state. The two embark on a friendship that will take at least one of them to the end of their days.
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is both heartbreakingly beautiful and spattered with comic relief to keep the reader going. Ivan’s observations about his fellow patients have an adult twist to them. With stubs for legs and three fingers on his only hand, he has a great deal of time to observe and report. His only real friendship before Polina is with with Nurse Natalya. Natalya is his champion, and also the woman who helps him get vodka when his agony becomes too much. Ivan intentionally describes himself in ways that make him painfully human. While many readers have complained that his descriptions of masturbation and feelings of lust are distracting, I argue that they are included to make the reader realize that even with a deformed body, he is still a human being with desires. Without the descriptions, it’s easy to let Ivan seem like a creature from a messed up fairy tale.
Polina becomes his chief distraction. While she is beautiful, it is her spirit that Ivan finds himself drawn to. She likes American rock and roll. She steals his books and leaves him notes. Polina challenges him to step outside the routines that he has developed for survival. This also makes it more tragic when she begins to sucuumb to her rather barbaric chemotherapy treatments.
Many readers have referred to this book as the European equivalent of The Fault in Our Stars. While Eastern European writers have been doing bleak semi-hopeless romances for ages before us, it is still a good comparison. What I would caution is to not read this book if you yourself, or a close family member, are going through cancer treatments. The occasional bouts of Russian terms are charming, but not enough to distract you from the torment Polina goes through. It is easy to put yourself or another family member in her place and start to lose hope.
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is written by Scott Stambach. It is available from St. Martin’s Press on August 9, 2016.