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Book Review

VITA NOSTRA BY MARINA DYACHENKO AND SERGEY DYACHENKO

Vita nostra brevis est 

Brevi finietur.

Venit mors velociter

Rapit nos atrociter

Nemini parcetur.   

(The commercium song of the Institute)
Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

Our life is brief 

Soon it will end. 

Death comes quickly. 

Snatches us cruelly

To nobody shall it be spared. 

This was, by far, the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It was also the most fascinating book I have read to date! The story starts off innocently enough, with Alexandra Samokhina (nicknamed Sasha, and is hence referred to as such for most of the book) introduced to us as the lead for our story. At this point, she is a 16-year-old high school student, vacationing at the beach with her mother, when a fateful meeting with a mysterious man named Farit Kozhenikov drastically changes everything. 

Now, I’m not going to go on about what happens after that, because nothing can be described without directly quoting the entire book, page-by-page. On the other hand, if you were looking for more of a synopsis, I apologize for the lack thereof – but in my defence, this post is primarily about my reaction to the book as opposed to a structured book report. 

And this book is anything but structured. 

In the traditional sense, there is a structured framework that the book adheres to. I will compare it to a traditional fantasy epic, although it is not classified as an “epic”, many certainly seem to classify it as a fantasy. However, following true to the nature of an epic, the story loosely follows the structure of “a hero’s journey”. In a literal sense, Sasha is taken from the ordinary world, called to adventure, has met her mentor, crossed the threshold, so on and so forth. Part of me is truly tempted to write about how this book does indeed follow a classic epic format by way of the hero’s journey, but I’m afraid that it’ll really turn this into a book report on steroids as opposed to a lighthearted review and blog post. 

Vita Nostra presents the reader with a slew of philosophical questions that they likely have never thought to reflect upon themselves. While a lot of elements are other worldly, the book itself is a journey through the ages – a coming of age story, but a grittier, dirtier, and much, much richer coming of age story that focuses instead on philosophical growth, using fantastical elements to portray that growth. If you strip away the physical transformations, apparently psychic abilities, and the developed ability to fly, Vita Nostra takes us through the trials of life. 

I truly have never read anything quite like it, and I hungrily devoured each word, each page, and each thought. I was hesitant to pursue this book in the beginning. I must admit, I chose to read the book for its cover – it is a stunning cover! However, I did not know quite what to expect when I began reading it. All I really knew was what the short blurb said (not unlike the first paragraph of this post), that it was actually a Russian novel translated into English, and that it was tagged as fantasy by many Goodreads readers. If anything, I built up any expectation upon the idea that the book was fantasy – so yes, I was expecting an alternate universe, a whole new dictionary of names, lands, and superhuman abilities, with maybe a dragon or two thrown in there. 

I am clearly just listing off stereotypes of the fantasy genre, and being a fantasy fanatic myself, I was expecting something akin to a steak frites on a menu. I definitely wasn’t expecting what Vita Nostra ended up serving me. What I got was a surf-and-turf meal, complete with the fantasy elements, but thrown for a loop with all the deeper themes explored. This book is about love, sex, knowledge, and pain. All the things that make life what it is. Sasha acts as our avatar in a world that is set within our own reality, navigating territory that everyone has had to navigate in their teens to early twenties. It’s an unknown land that everyone experiences differently – as you will see with Sasha – and yet, everyone can empathize with your struggle and vice versa. 

Vita Nostra unpacks what you know as reality and introduces you to the other world – the world of possibility. 

Published inReview

5 Comments

  1. Ash Ash

    Love the review?

    What are some of the philosophical questions you found the book asking you? Also, l’ve never read and English translated book before. How was that experience? Did you find some of it lost in translation?

    Can’t wait to hear about what you read next!

    • Ash Ash

      Didn’t mean to end the first sentence with a question mark! Oopsie doopsie!

    • Kim Kim

      Thank you! Outside of my required reading in school, this was my first time reading a translated text as well! Regarding sentences or phrases lost in translation, I’m not familiar enough with Russian euphemisms or sayings, but I don’t think it took away from my reading experience. The book pushed the boundaries of what it means to be “special”. This school selected individuals for certain qualities that others lacked and trained them in a way to nurture and grow these “abilities” to become something more. It was a very interesting read!!

      Thank you for the comment! 🙂

  2. I absolutely LOVE books that make me think philosophically—those are my favorite types of reads. I’ve never heard of this book and probably wouldn’t have considered it, but you’ve definitely made me want to check it out!

    • Kim Kim

      I’m so happy to hear that! I was all question marks when I first started reading it, but something about it really hooked me on to it in no time. If you do read it in the future, I would love to hear your thoughts!

      Thank you for the comment! 🙂

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