Friday, December 9, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

It is no secret to a regular reader of this blog that young adult fiction books are my absolute favorite to read and review. And I am always excited to read one that is not set in an American high school, but maybe instead somewhere overseas, and in a setting other than a school. Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko gives me both, as it is set in a hospital in Belarus.

The Situation: In the foreword to Ivan's story, it is explained that the papers that contain it were found in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Mazyr, Belarus by a journalist. The writer, Ivan, is believed to most likely have suffered from the connective tissue disorder known as Beals syndrome, as well as several other conditions. Ivan often describes himself as being only half of a person. With no legs and only one arm, Ivan must use a wheelchair in order to get around the hospital, where he has lived his entire life. He does not know who his parents are; has been through fourteen different psychologists at the hospital; can tell how long a patient will be at the hospital by the amount of pills and drugs they have to take, as well as the symptoms they show; and reads every book that he can get his hands on. Due to the limited library at the hospital, he receives most of his books from Nurse Natalya, who is not only his favorite nurse, but also the best friend he has ever had.

The Problem: Despite his own health problems and disabilities, and the fact that he is confined to the hospital, Ivan has more or less gotten used to his situation and has come up with many ways of dealing with it and keeping himself entertained. But in late 2005, all of his preconceived notions and ideas almost have to be done away with when Polina enters the hospital. She is beautiful, but also orphaned, and incredibly sick. Despite her problems, she does not look at all like she should be at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and her appearance has caused such a disruption in Ivan's otherwise fairly orderly life that none of his usual tricks and games do anything to put it back together. Polina is someone whose attention he actually wants to get; someone he wants to talk to; and someone who he actually cares whether they live or die.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a hospital in Belarus. Though Ivan does not know when his birthday is, it is later revealed that he is 18 years old. Having spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, he knows everything about the building and those that have worked there for a long time. Even when it comes to those who have been at the hospital for only a short time, Ivan's sharp observational skills quickly tell him everything he needs to know about that person, and he has no problem using that information to his advantage. The other residents, or mutants as Ivan calls them, are not as aware as Ivan, but that changes when Polina is admitted. She challenges Ivan in ways that not even Nurse Natalya can manage, and although he has insecurities about his physical appearance, Polina does not seem to at all mind how he looks or how he talks. It is assumed that Ivan's deformities, and even most of the problems that plague the children in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, can be blamed on radiation that was released into the area when a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986. Even in 2005, the surrounding area is still suffering the consequences of this explosion, giving the hospital a constant stream of patients. With the appearance of Polina, Ivan experiences emotions and a relationship he never thought he would get to have. It is the kind of story that is rarely told, but should be told more often: a boy who thought he knew everything there was to know about loss ends up learning so much more, while also receiving the love he never knew he deserved. 

My Verdict: This is a good story. In fact, it is extremely close to being a great story. Besides a few things here and there that made the novel either too much like the rest, or that did not quite fit with Ivan's voice, it is an engaging story with a fun, tricky, sometimes frustrating, but also sympathetic narrator. Ivan is often a jerk, but given his condition and history, it is understandable, and it is also often forgiven. And framing the story as a handwritten diary of sorts coming from Ivan himself works very well. The only way someone like Ivan would find the need to write down anything from his life is if something massive and/or catastrophic happened. So the reader knows Ivan's story is going somewhere, even during the moments when it seems like he is only describing the daily events of his life at the hospital. Every sentence is leading to something, and nothing feels wasted or unnecessary. But there are moments that do not quite feel true, or like something the Ivan we get to know would do. Other than that, this is a touching story of a hurt soul who is not done hurting.

Favorite Moment: Partially because it was so fascinating, I enjoyed Ivan's description of who he refers to as the Ginger Twins. Two red-headed twins named Mary and Magdalena live at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and they are inseparable. That in and of itself is not so fascinating. But they do everything together and play together without even speaking. Without words, they both decide to do the same things and play the same games. Even Ivan with all of his tricks was not able to disrupt them, separate them, or make them acknowledge anyone else in the hospital.

Favorite Character: It would be easy to see Nurse Natalya as an enabler of Ivan's jerky behavior, but when you consider how little he gets to do, her behavior makes a lot more sense. And really, she treats him the way she does because she respects him enough to give him as much of a "normal" life as possible.

Recommended Reading: A book by John Green is always a good idea, so for this week I recommend The Fault in Our Stars. Also, Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom would be a good choice too.     

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