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Vita Nostra by Sergey Dyachenko and Marina Dyachenko. Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey. Book review

November 1, 2018

Book cover of Vita Nostra.

Sasha Samokhina is like every other teenager, wanting to have fun, fall in love and eventually go to a good college when she leaves school. Being a studious and bright girl Sasha has an exciting future ahead of her. But an encounter with a mysterious stranger on holiday appears to change all that, as she is plunged into challenging physical tasks after which she is rewarded with gold coins. The coins are part of the entry condition to a college Sasha has never heard of and certainly does not want to attend. The price for non-compliance or poor achievement is that a member of her family will be punished in some way.

Almost immediately Sasha begins her studies, her previous tasks appear to have been child’s play. Sasha is put under intolerable pressure until she fears she might lose her mind or, looking at the students in the years ahead of her, something even worse.

It was clear fairly soon into the book that I was reading something very fresh, different and special.

Sasha’s progress through her tortuous and challenging education brought to mind the struggles of Knecht, the Master Ludi, of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Her tasks are equally as obscure, but in Vita Nostra the student is expected to make something tangible of them in their journey to their spiritual transformation. The gruelling work welds apparently impossible visualisation exercises with philosophy to achieve a particular level of sorcery each student has an aptitude for. Sasha is particularly gifted. But in the effort to achieve her potential, Sasha is under constant threat of tipping over into madness.

At the same time she is coping with the transition from a teenager to an adult. This is far from easy for Sasha. You realise once she returns home from her seaside holiday that she is not the most social person. She becomes increasing isolated as she struggles to keep up with the tasks the mysterious stranger sets her.

Throughout the book you feel as if Sasha is living out her existence on quicksand, as she feels her way through life in the Institute of Special Technologies in the remote town of Torpa. Sasha also has the development of her mother’s new relationship at home to content with. The two worlds feel as if they are separate and yet at the same time reflect each other, with Sasha as their connection.

The book is split into three main sections, each documenting Sasha’s progression through three years of education at Torpa. In terms of Sasha herself, you really get a sense of her growing maturity, both in how she adapts to her new life, maturing into an adult, and relentless anguish over trying to grasp the impossible while being subjected to apparently unfair treatment. All this simply because in order to develop she needs to find her way through on her own without a clear explanation of why it is she is doing these complex exercises and even how she might successfully achieve the results her tutors are looking for.

Sasha’s obscure coursework is fascinating, made all the more intriguing to the reader as they too begin to feel the completely unintelligible might actually make a weird kind of sense.

Because of the conceptual complexity of the narrative and what the authors are trying to convey I cannot help but admire Julia Meitov Hersey’s translation.

It is easy to see why Vita Nostra has been held in such high regard. I am sure the novelwill be one of those books older young adult readers will want to say they have read, because there is such huge scope for discussion about the way Sasha’s bizarre educational exercises appear to work with philosophy, as well as how the demanding course affects her.

Yet despite all the strangeness, Sasha’s adjustment to a new life away from her mother and the comforts of home, as well as her developing relationships over her years of study, are experiences which are the same the world over and will resonate strongly with readers.

Vita Nostra will also appeal to an adult audience, particularly because it will take more than one reading, being a book to revisit over the years as a satisfying read to mull over.

Vita Nostra was courtesy of HarperVoyager via NetGalley.

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