book review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

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VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
★★★★★
Harper Voyager, November 2018

 

At the start of this novel, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina is on a seaside vacation with her mother, where after a few days she finds herself stalked by a mysterious man with pale skin and dark glasses. She is eventually confronted by this stranger, who entreats Sasha to wake up at 4 am every morning, go to the beach, take off all her clothes, and swim to a buoy and back. She reluctantly agrees to this strange task, and as soon as she’s back on shore that first morning, she starts to vomit gold coins.

Thus begins the wildly unconventional journey that the Dyachenkos take the reader on in Vita Nostra, which has safely earned its distinction as the most unorthodox book I have ever read. This doesn’t follow any kind of narrative formula that will be familiar to many western readers – it’s bizarrely lacking in conflict, resolution, plot twists, and structure. But it’s also the most singular and enchanting and darkly horrifying book I have ever read.

Honestly, the marketing team has my sympathy for this one, because I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that so staunchly defies categorization. There are recognizable elements from traditional coming of age novels, but it isn’t a bildungsroman; there are hints and whispers of magic but it isn’t really fantasy; there are some classic Magical School tropes but it isn’t remotely comparable to Harry Potter; and it’s filled to the brim with philosophical references but its maddeningly esoteric approach is strangely alienating even to readers who are interested in its central themes. A large part of this book is just stumbling blindly alongside Sasha and waiting for everything to be made clear, which it never really is.

It’s proving to be quite the challenge to explain what the appeal exactly is of a book like this, and I fully accept that this isn’t going to be for everyone. This isn’t really for readers who need to be entertained by plot or readers who need to be invested in complex character dynamics. This is more for the readers drawn equally to a compelling atmosphere and big ideas; readers who are both thrilled and terrified at the idea that their own worldview is more limited than they ever could have imagined. This book mesmerized me from the very first page and proved to be the most unexpected reading experience I’ve ever had. At times it’s frustrating and incomprehensible but never for a single moment does it fail to stimulate. This is one of the most exceptional things I have read in a very long time, and one of those books that will absolutely reward the effort you put into it.

Thanks so much to Harper Voyager for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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35 thoughts on “book review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

    • I feel like I didn’t say a single thing in this review. I just. How do you talk about this book?!

      SUCH a masterpiece though. And I just found out that it’s the first in a series (which makes sense given the structure but I still had no idea) and I just really hope the translator is already working on the next part.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is so very difficult to talk about for sure. Plus, for me it just ticked all my boxes so I am not even sure I can objectively tell who I could recommend it too.

        I saw that it was a series a few days ago and went looking if maybe there was already a German translation (we do often get books translated earlier than English does), so I could buy that and keep reading. But I guess I will have to wait whether the second book will get an English translation. (another reason to keep shouting from the rooftops how brilliant the book is)

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is most definitely a ‘this was brilliant but I’m not necessarily telling you to go out and read it’ book… even though I paradoxically want everyone to read it? I mean, I don’t know. It seems SO niche but it’s also not my usual kind of book at all? But maybe it is thematically, even if the genre is a bit different? Basically I need everyone else to read this and tell us if we are weird for loving it.

        If the second book doesn’t get an English translation I will be SO upset. The only other language I can read comfortably is Italian and I don’t know if there is an Italian translation but I’m not sure I could handle this book in Italian anyway. Also, did you see that the second book is called Brevis Est? That is just so brilliant.

        Liked by 1 person

      • For me, it really is right up my alley but I am not sure I know who would also like it. I read this other Russian fantasy novel ages ago (Empire V by Victor Pelevin) that I just adored. It was a bit similar in the way that just nothing got properly explained. I made my boyfriend read and it and he HATED it. And he usually has a fairly similar taste to my UF taste.

        I am really hoping the rest of the series get translated. Because I just want to spend more time in the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have hardly any experience with Russian lit at all (aside from my nemesis War and Peace) so I just had no idea what to expect from this. But I’m so happy I read it because I feel like I so rarely find fantasy that works for me. Apparently existential Russian fantasy is a niche I need to explore more of. I will definitely look up that other book you read.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think I am getting closer to being able to custom-recommend fantasy novels you would enjoy. Because I do think I am getting the hang of it. I have some theories what makes a fantasy novel you like.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I will be totally honest, the cover was the main driving force behind me requesting a copy of this. But it ended up being SUCH a rewarding gamble. I really hope you enjoy this bizarre book as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds like the sort of book I would really want to love but would actually hate because I would have no idea what the hell was going on lmao. I think I’m still intrigued enough to try it though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel very uncomfortable about the fact that there’s a fantasy book that appeals more to me than to you but tbh I’m inclined to agree… I’d be reallyyyyy curious to hear your thoughts though!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] 10. Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.  Look at me starting off my books of the year with fantasy!  Who am I!  But this spot was very well-earned, as Vita Nostra is one of the most singular and spectacular books I’ve read in my life.  It follows Sasha Samokhina, a young girl manipulated into attending a magical school filled with eccentric teachers and incomprehensible lessons.  I was expecting a rather run of the mill fantasy novel, but instead I got something esoteric and darkly horrifying that enchanted me from start to finish.  Full review here. […]

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  3. Okay, okay, but WHAT happens at the END?
    Yes, I just finished this last night at midnight…
    I need to talk to someone about this, lol!! Are Sasha’s mom and baby Valentin okay?? What is going on??

    I don’t know how I feel about this book, but I love Sasha, what a character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • HELLOOOO I’M GLAD YOU READ IT

      OK SO my interpretation was that when Sasha failed the exam her mom and brother were killed, but………??? It is very possible that I am wrong. Another friend who read it didn’t interpret it that way at all. What did you think?? I neeeeed the sequel’s translation to get a publication date.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That was kind of my interpretation, but it said they were “sleeping” – ugh translations, lol.
        I’ve been poking around and it seems the other books in the series are only linked “thematically” which I take to mean, not the same characters? Very little info in English that I can find.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ugh I know, ‘sleeping’ but then ‘cool and lusterless’ and ‘haggard and pale’ arghhh. The translator follows me on Twitter and she’s super cool but I can’t think of a way to ask what the hell happens at the end that doesn’t make me sound like a dumbass lol.

        I heard the same thing from a commenter on Goodreads who read them in the original language. And I am bummed because Sasha was THE BEST character, but I’ll take whatever I can get. I am just so weirdly compelled by this strange universe.

        Liked by 1 person

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