(I am a Harper Voyager Super Reader: HarperVoyager gives me free advance copies of upcoming science-fiction and fantasy titles, and in return I write honest reviews. This one is spoiler-free.)
Vita Nostra easily wins the prize for Strangest Novel I’ve Read This Year. The bizarre, uh, let’s call it “technical school” where the story is set maintains a practice of bluntly telling its frequently-mystified students, “You wouldn’t understand, and I can’t explain it anyway.” Vita Nostra as a book works similarly, but of course that makes for a miserably unhelpful review. So, after infinite labor not unlike central character Sasha’s, I’ve found a few descriptive comments I can make.
1) This novel was written by the husband-wife team Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and published in Russia in 2007. They’ve been publishing prolifically since 1994, but this, their third novel, is only now coming to English via Harper Voyager, having been translated smoothly by Julia Meitov Hersey. It’s about time! It comes out this November.
2) It’s fantasy, in that magic does exist in the book’s universe and characters do learn it. Beyond that it gets…complicated. More on this below.
3) The literary term “magical realism” applies unusually well here. Not only does the story describe the learning of magic in a fully realistic quotidian context (a college dormitory); also, Vita Nostra feels like a joint effort of Lev Grossman (the college where young people learn magic), Franz Kafka (literalizing certain central metaphors), and Leo Tolstoy (serious musing on the point and meaning of life).
4) The point explored here is all the figurative and literal ways in which deep, devoted study “changes your mind.” You may have had this experience as an undergraduate, and almost certainly did if you attended graduate school: at some point you sort of stop, and catch yourself thinking about something, and you realize you have changed profoundly both in your attitudes and in the way you approach the task of thinking itself, and you wonder how and when this happened to you and what it all means. You may even wish you could go back, but not really, because how could you give up all of your incredible development? Vita Nostra follows Sasha Samokhina as she finishes high school, goes off to college, and in her first 2.5 years there, seriously “changes her mind.”
The different book covers reflect this central idea. This is the new cover from Harper Voyager.
The image communicates a certain violence—which appropriately matches the process of learning this particular magic. The story’s darkness, too, shines out. Alternate cover art focuses on learning’s deconstructive-then-reconstructive effects on Sasha.
Some cover art gives the slightest of spoilers, though you wouldn’t recognize them as such until you’ve read that part.
It all starts off in mysterious, sinister fashion. Sixteen-year-old Sasha and her mother are vacationing at a Russian beach resort. (Sasha’s father has been absent since before her birth.) Sasha notices a creepy, mirrored-sunglasses-wearing man who won’t stop staring at her. Again and again, everywhere she goes, he’s staring. Eventually he talks to her, assigning her a bizarre task: every day at 4 a.m. sharp, while at the resort, she is to take off all her clothes, jump into the ocean, and swim out to the bay’s buoy and return. A mysterious dream state she can’t seem to get out of will continue, and/or very bad things will happen to people she loves, unless she does this without fail. So she does. Returning home before dawn, she vomits up three mysteriously marked solid gold coins. Each day she swims; each day she vomits up one additional coin. At the end of her holiday, the man (who is clearly not a pervert, by the way, not watching her naked) collects the coins and assigns her a similar predawn daily task for her hometown. The mysterious coins accumulate when she fulfills her assignment. Terrifying things happen when she doesn’t. In time she develops a paralyzing unwillingness to study official school subjects, because
“What’s the point?
Because clearly the world did not work the way she imagined before. The visible connection between different events—objective laws, consistent patterns, accidents, and regular days—all this simply served as a Chinese screen for another existence, invisible and incomprehensible.
If the man in the dark glasses exists—really, truly exists—if his hands hold dreams, reality, accidents…What is the purpose, then, of going to school? Entering a university? When at any moment everything could disappear, be destroyed, simply because Sasha’s alarm clock did not go off on time?”
Sasha finishes her senior year of high school, ingloriously and unwillingly. The mystery man then materializes again, informing her that she will be attending a certain “technical school” in a small, obscure town named Torpa. The bulk of the novel follows Sasha’s incremental learning, the changing of her mind (and body), for her bewildering first year, her strange second year, and her transformational third year.
All I can reveal about Sasha’s time at school is this.
1) At first all the assignments seem completely pointless and impossible—for example, to memorize nonsense paragraphs filled with nonsense words, or to perform elaborate multistep mental imaginings, like “imagine a sphere within a sphere, then turn the inner sphere inside out while leaving the outer sphere unchanged; now reverse the process.” The tasks do have a point and cause distinct effects in the learners.
2) When the teachers tell students it will all make sense at some point, but right now explanations won’t help and are impossible—they’re telling the truth.
3) The magic is real and it has enormous potential effects on the rest of the world—everyone’s lives, not just the students’.
Much of the pleasure of reading Vita Nostra is seriously having no idea what will happen next nor what it all means, until you get there. Like the school, you really just have to experience it for yourself! As bizarre as the beginning is, like a Kafka story it makes a kind of magical-realist sense throughout: for example, have you not often found schoolwork to have a pointless, arbitrary, irrelevant quality metaphorically similar to Sasha’s swimming assignment? Have you not experienced the “changing of your mind”?
I predict, like Lev Grossman, that this book will become “a classic of the genre.” I hope it will also lead to more English translations of the Dyachenkos’ fascinating work. Did you catch that, Harper Voyager?