Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Vita Nostra

Read The World: Ukraine

Sasha Samokhina is a straight A student looking forward to going to university. When on holiday with her single mother a strange man starts to follow her. He sets her a challenge to repeat every day, to go swimming naked the same time every morning. If she doesn’t oblige, she will be stuck in a time loop or worse, her family will be hurt. And hurt in a way no one can prove was anyone else’s fault… When she succeeds, Sasha is offered a place at the Institute of Special Technologies. An offer she cannot refuse.

The afternoon sun was just as scorching, but Sasha's instant chill felt like a lining of frost in her stomach. Not really sure of why she was so afraid of the dark man, Sasha shot up the street, her sandals drumming a feverish rhythm and passersby hastily moving out her way.

What on earth was this? It’s either genius or insane. Metaphysics, philosophy, the trials of growing up and going to university, a totalitarian regime at a mysterious university where they learn “special technologies”, emotional blackmail... You’re either going to love it or hate it.

The beginning captures the feeling of street harassment so well, that second sense that someone is watching you and the paranoia that something really bad will happen. Sasha asks Farit Kozhennikov if he is a pervert, because that is the initial reaction of anyone sane. And then suddenly it changes direction, but there is this huge sense of anxiety in the background. Whatever is happening cannot be good.

Sasha slumped at the edge of the cot, laden with the firm conviction that something terrible had just happened. Something unidentifiable, inexplicable, some unknown threat - and thus, her terror grew in a geometric progression.

Usually when characters in books get whisked off to a secret, magical school, they love it. They are being taken out of a life they hated and given new opportunities. But Sasha does not wish to go to Torpa, a place she has never heard of, and explain to her family why she’s suddenly changed her mind about her education. No one at the special institute seems to want to be there. At one point her mother becomes convinced she has been brainwashed by some cult. Her first year there is not a cheery experience.

So it gets really weird but I also found myself trying to do the exercises along with Sasha. She doesn’t know the point of what she is doing. Her family’s health is held hostage, bad things will happen if she doesn’t comply. I liked that it intertwined normal university life, like not getting on with your roommates or dealing with a communal kitchen, with the metaphysical weirdness.

I never ask for the impossible.

I did find it dragged a little in the middle, the only thing stopping me from giving it 4 stars. The exercises are repetitive for a reason, but I did want the story to move just a little bit faster. I think I love it, but I’m not sure I understand all of it.

I’ve seen a lot of people call this a Russian fantasy but it’s Ukrainian, maybe that’s a political distinction considering the Crimea. The seaside town it starts in, Nikita, is in the Crimea and the authors are Ukrainian but it was originally written in Russian and has been a bestseller in Russia. There is a bit of a Soviet vibe to it. Vita Nostra has been translated into English for the first time by Julia Meitov Hersey.

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Book Source: Purchased

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