Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra
By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey
Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.
Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman
Winner of the PocKoH 2008
Vita nostra brevis est, Our life is brief,
Brevi finietur; Soon it will end;
Venit mors velociter, Death comes quickly,
Rarit nos atrociter, Snatches us cruelly,
Nemini parcetur! No one is spared!
I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible.
Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute.
The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors.
The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.
The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre.
Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!
Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions!
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!
List of Works Cited
Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction.
Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism.