Title: The Invisible Life of Ivan Iseanko
Author: Scott Stambach
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 326
The titular protagonist of this heart wrenching novel is a teenage boy with a disfigured face and only one limb who has spent his whole life in a Belarusian hospital ‘for gravely ill’ children. Ivan is not a very pleasant young man- he heckles his nurses and therapists, berates the disabled patients, and seems to consider himself high above everyone else. Under all the meanness and the cynicism, though, is a desperately lonely kid living a painful and maddingly boring existence.
Ivan’s life changes when Polina moves into the facility. Polina has leukemia but she’s articulate and smart like Ivan and they start up a fraught love-hate relationship where Ivan’s attraction to her seems hopelessly unreciprocated. We know right off the bat at the beginning of the book that Polina dies, and Ivan describes the events leading up to this devastating event. The Invisible Life of Ivan Iseanko is a sad and tender book with a unique setting and memorable protagonist.
Ivan might be hard to like and root for at times but I never regretted getting a look into his bright but troubled mind. You really get a sense of the mundanity and claustrophobia in the place where Ivan has spent his entire life, and the lack of consideration the patients get from most of the nurses. They’re treated as more of a chore than as actual people, and they’ve virtually been forgotten by society and in some cases, their families.
I have to admit I didn’t feel like I entirely got Ivan and Polina’s relationship. I think I got more hate vibes than love vibes from them. Their deep connection just sometimes seemed more like something forged out of mutual neediness and loneliness than genuinely liking to be around each other. I also got tired of Ivan’s obsession with his penis.
I get it, he’s a guy, a little obsessing is natural. But we have a whole chapter devoted to this guy’s penis and his masturbatory habits. At the same time I liked the rawness of the story. It definitely wasn’t a sappy ‘kids overcome disabilities and become better people’ narrative. Overall I found this to be a compelling coming-of-age story and I’d like to see more from this author.