There are some writers who represent a world with such immediacy that it’s scary. You wonder what their experience was. Has he or she ever actually been there, or done that? This is the feeling you’ll get when you read Scott Stambach’s debut novel, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko.
The book is the diary of a severely crippled Belorussian boy who’s spent his whole life in a hospital for sick children. Born in 1987, his deformities, and those of his fellow inmates, were no doubt caused by the radiation that resulted from the Chernobyl disaster. So the perfidy and carelessness of adults lies always in the story’s background, as well as in the foreground. Save the saintly and maternal Natalya, most of the nurses are indifferent or sadistic. The mostly unseen post-Soviet bureaucracy makes it clear it has little to spare for these damaged children, even if their damage was caused by another arm of the same bureaucracy.
Seventeen-year-old Ivan copes with this with his fierce intelligence, sarcasm and ability to make life a bit difficult for the staff, even as he lacks one arm, both legs and two fingers on his one hand. Reader, he can do some remarkable things with just two fingers and a thumb.
Then, Polina arrives. At first, she looks like a normal teenaged girl, but she is probably another instance of Chernobyl’s collateral damage. She has leukemia, and it will kill her. But her blossoming relationship with Ivan gives them both reasons to thrive. Surely, they are a match for each other, for she’s as ornery as he is until the disease knocks the orneriness out of her. Clear your calendar for an afternoon of ugly-crying.
What’s amazing is nothing in Stambach’s C.V. would make a reader think he’d be capable of such a book. His bio says he’s a special ed teacher in a San Diego charter school who’s written for literary magazines. Is that it? How does he know what it’s like to be a boy with half a body, or a girl whose white blood cells and chemo drugs are in a pitched battle over who is going to kill her first? The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko must be counted as a miracle of a book.