As of this precise moment, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra represents the biggest triumph of this “Read Around the World” project I’m doing. The authors are Ukrainian, and there is simply no way I would have encountered this book were I not specifically looking for books from Eastern European authors. Honestly, I don’t have high standards for ordering these books right now– I pick a blank spot on the map, search for authors and look for something that looks vaguely up my alley thematically, and hit the order button.
If you look at the Amazon listing for this book, you’ll see the words “Harry Potter” a lot. I was considering beginning this piece with the suggestion that anyone who suggested that this book and the Harry Potter series had something in common ought to be slapped, and then I discovered a Goodreads review that called it “Harry Potter, but written by Kafka,” and … well, that’s not bad.
(Also, that top review on Amazon is batshit insane.)
The book is about a young person– college-aged, though, not an adolescent like Harry is at the start of the story– who goes to a school, and the school is not normal. That’s the entirety of the similarities to Harry Potter, and it ain’t much, and another person I might add to the literary ancestry of this book is H.P. Lovecraft– not because of monsters, or anything like that, but because the entire book is about the idea that there exists a secret and unknowable universe beyond what human beings are able to perceive, and that attempting to contact that universe will inevitably drive you completely insane.
And, well, the book follows a single student through three years of her university education at a school of something called “Special Technologies,” and — very, very minor spoiler here– at the end she takes something called a “placement exam,” and the book fucking ends right there, because the authors have been very clear throughout that the knowledge Sasha and her classmates are accessing is alien and terrible, and she enters that realm fully at the end of the book, at which point they really can’t represent what’s happening to her in words anymore, so I guess the book is over. Like, you’d think telling you the ending would count as a major spoiler, but it really doesn’t, because much like Sasha herself you just have no idea what the hell is coming here, and knowing where you’re going to end up just doesn’t matter all that much.
It’s fucking amazing.
It’s also super, super Russian; like, you could strip all of the names and places out of the book and replace them with something more generic and I absolutely promise you that I could tell you this book was from the Eastern bloc. I need to see how much other translated work these folks have (preferably translated by the same person; Julia Meitov Hersey did a great job) and pick up another couple of titles. This is 100% not a book for everybody; I can’t imagine the notion of (sigh) Harry Potter filtered through Kafka and Lovecraft and then translated from Ukrainian (I’m not actually sure if it was written in Ukrainian or Russian, for the record) is going to appeal to everyone, but if that raises an eyebrow, and if the notion of a book that is really and genuinely about a college student studying impossible subjects that make her go crazy appeals to you, well, I strongly recommend you give it a look.
Also, we should be friends. Seriously.