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The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

Review

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

The Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, located in Belarus --- part Soviet-style institution, part Orthodox Church charity --- is home to a small number of terminally ill or severely disabled patients. The most interesting and, in many ways, most difficult resident of the hospital is 17-year-old Ivan Isaenko.

Born with a cluster of serious birth defects and deformities most likely resulting from radiation from the explosion of a Ukrainian nuclear reactor, Ivan was brought to the hospital as a baby, and his parents were unknown. His life at the hospital is depressing and lonely, his keen intelligence only challenged by the books brought to him by his favorite nurse and the games he plays to keep things interesting for himself. A new hospital resident, the beautiful, mischievous, recently orphaned and actively dying Polina Pushkin, changes everything for him. Ivan is the unlikely and amazing Romantic hero of Scott Stambach’s novel, THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF IVAN ISAENKO.

"...bittersweet, terribly funny and clever, heartbreaking and totally wonderful.... THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF IVAN ISAENKO is a tribute to the power of the mind, the gift of the imagination, and the human capacity for love."

For most of his life, Ivan has kept himself busy and staved off his suicidal thoughts by reading, especially the Russian classics, spying on the staff and other patients at the hospital, and creating some havoc from time to time. In his journal, written frantically over a period of days in December 2005, Ivan introduced himself, the nursing staff and some patients. He also explains the categories of patients: the heart-hole children, the bleeders, the non-bleeders and the three-monthers. The hospital is a sad and isolated place with few visitors and with little chance of recovery or healing for most patients. The small nursing staff ranges from the cruel sociopathic Lyudmila to the maternal and loving Natalya, who is the closest thing to family Ivan has ever known. The entire place is run by Mikhail Kruk, the director who spends more time engaged in affairs with nurses than caring for his charges. Ivan has labeled him “the Most Mediocre Man in the World.”

Ivan’s dreary and predictable life in the hospital is disrupted by the arrival of Polina. Having recently lost both her parents, Polina, who has cancer, is admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy and care. When she sneaks into Ivan’s room and steals a book, he is both angry and charmed. Eventually they become friends, though Ivan knows he has fallen in love with her. They are united by their frustrations, sorrows and intellectual prowess. Their friendship and romance are transcendent and true. The weeks fly by as Ivan watches Polina lose her hair and succumb to her battle with cancer. Extraordinarily, though, even in the depths of his fears, distress and misery as Polina dies, Ivan, with her help, finds new strength and even a glimmer of hope for a better and more meaningful life. Armed with information about his origins and a suitcase symbolizing freedom, last gifts from Polina, Ivan may be ready to leave the hospital behind once and for all.

Stambach’s novel is bittersweet, terribly funny and clever, heartbreaking and totally wonderful. Ivan is heroic in the literary sense, and readers are lucky to have a glimpse of the world, as narrow and mean as his world is, through his eyes. The power of both Ivan’s life and Polina’s death drives the novel, and Stambach’s writing is light, despite the heavy subject matter, and utterly charming. Along with being highly entertaining, THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF IVAN ISAENKO is a tribute to the power of the mind, the gift of the imagination, and the human capacity for love.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 23, 2016

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko
by Scott Stambach

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250081866
  • ISBN-13: 9781250081865