Ivan Isaenko was born 18 months after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded near Pripyat, Ukraine, in 1986, and like many newborns from that region, he came into the world with numerous health problems and physical abnormalities.
In Ivan’s case, he’s missing legs and has just one three-fingered hand. But his brain works perfectly, and his sharp mind brings him to places dark, brooding, and inventive. The only home he’s ever known is the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus, and he detests the other patients, most of whom lack the ability to communicate with the intellectual rigor he craves. On top of this, Ivan has never met his parents and has never had a visitor. He has no friends, save for elderly Nurse Natalya, who not only treats him as a worthy conversationalist, but brings him books, puzzles, and games to keep him occupied. It’s not much, but it helps. Then, when he's 17, a new patient enters the mix. Orphaned Polina is everything Ivan is not—beautiful, able-bodied, lively, and full of teenage curiosity and sass. She’s also suffering from leukemia. As she and Ivan bond, their deep conversations and passionate exchanges rip the boy from his solitude, and, for the first time in his life, he finds camaraderie and connection with a peer. Not surprisingly, he falls in love with Polina, and the pair’s unfolding relationship is both tender and tragic. At the same time, their interactions are seasoned with humor, wit, and astute observation, and the hospital itself is as full a character as Ivan and Polina. What’s more, despite the presence of a corrupt health care bureaucracy, the story highlights the ways random acts of kindness can illuminate individual lives and make the seemingly unbearable tolerable, if not wholly acceptable.
An auspicious, gut-wrenching, wonderful debut.