20 Books of Summer: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

This summer was supposed to be the summer I read only the books I’d selected for this year’s 20 Books of Summer. Sadly though I’ve already stumbled out of the gate by deviating from my plan. Last weekend at the public library I spotted a copy of Scott Stambach’s 2016 novel The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. Once I read the jacket blurb it was all over. Set in Belarus it’s perfect for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I mean come on; how often did you get to read a novel set in Balarus?

Born just 60 miles downwind from the horrible nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ivan Isaenko’s genetic code was scrambled by radioactive fallout. Like a latter day thalidomide baby he’s forced to navigate life devoid of legs with only one arm and two fingers. An orphan confined to a wheelchair he’s lived all 17 years of his life at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. Despite his severe physical abnormalities and limited surroundings he’s a highly intelligent, yet cynical young man with an uncanny ability to read and manipulate others to achieve his own ends. Most his days are spent voraciously reading, keenly observing the foibles and machinations of the hospital’s staff, pitying the miserable plight of his genetically-ravaged fellow young patients while engaging in petty thievery, binge drinking and recreational masturbation.

But this routine is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Polina. Young, pretty and unlike the rest of the patients doesn’t appear cursed with horrible birth defects or other afflictions like extreme autism. To Ivan it’s a mystery why she’s there and after seeing how the staff takes a liking to her he quickly grows jealous. While the words they exchange are few, it’s clear she doesn’t like him either. Refusing to show him the deference he feels due she has zero patience for his egotistical attitude, even stealing his books.

But at the apogee of their mutual dislike things begin to change. Ivan learns she’s battling Leukemia, a battle it appears she isn’t winning. Gradually, she allows him into her world, corresponding back and forth with him via her private journal she conveniently leaves out for him each day. Through their missives they learn they’re much alike: intelligent, well-read, orphaned (recently in Polina’s case) and somewhat kleptomaniacal. Before long this mutual respect blossoms into a kind of teenage romance that transcends the limitations imposed by Ivan’s severe disabilities and Polina’s ravaging illness.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is one of those enemies turned lovers love stories but with a bittersweet leavening of dark humor and sadness. Pleasantly sick and wrong, it’s great reading if you enjoy the twisted and fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks or Gary Shteyngart. Yet another pleasant surprise to come my way, it’s a welcomed detour for my 20 Books of Summer.

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