Ivan Isaenko is trapped. Trapped in his mutated body, trapped in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and trapped in the world he has built in his mind. He is well-read, self-deprecating, and intensely practical. Never having known any life other than that inside the hospital, Ivan develops a dry, dark sense of humor that rivals Frank McCourt’s. He also concocts routines that help him pass the boredom of his existence and help him to process the continuous horror of being surrounded by radiation-poisoned, mentally deficient, dying children. The only person he can really talk to is Nurse Natalya, who brings in books. His world is turned upside down when an orphaned leukemia patient is admitted in his 17th year. She’s smart, pretty, and a bit of a thief.
The addition of Polina and the inevitable love story that follows will remind many of The Fault in Our Stars. These teens, however, are unattractive, intensely awkward, and starkly alone without each other. There will be no wish-making, no answers, and only a bit of lyricism; just a few stolen moments that might make leaping into the abyss a little less terrifying.
If you liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Angela’s Ashes, you’d like this, too.