Our life is brief ..
Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies. Or, more precisely, she’s been chosen.
Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.
I don't know how I came to be aware of Vita Nostra but it is in serious contention for one of the best, if not the best book I read in 2018. It's written by a husband-and-wife team from the Ukraine. She is a former actress, he a former psychiatrist. According to the book jacket, the translator, Julia Hersey, started translating their novel from its original Russian because she wanted to share it with her family.
The deeper I got into the novel, the more eager I became to turn the pages, unable to figure out where it was going even until the startling conclusion. I read a review of Vita Nostra which mentioned its "Russian sensibility." Although I can't properly explain what that means, I suppose it has to do with the fact that there is very little that is warm and fuzzy in this fantasy novel.
Although it is about a young adult who is accepted into a school of magic, it is as far from Harry Potter as you can get. Sasha is intimidated and threatened into going to the Institute of Special Technologies - either she attends (thereby surrendering her dream of going to an ordinary university) or... Nothing is explicitly stated, but it is clear that her beloved mother's life would be in danger otherwise.
Kindly Dumbledore, her professors are not. They are exacting, harsh, and relentless. Lessons are expected to be learned, without any explanation of what they are leading towards. The Institute is old and well, institutional, rather than a wondrous Hogwarts. It is a cold and almost friendless life. Even the textbooks are frustrating to read because they are written in gibberish. Magic, when it arrives in the story, is subtle and without the glamor of the typical fantasy.
“Every day she had to read sections, memorize, cram, and grind at snippets of nonsensical, unpleasant text. Sasha herself did not understand why this gobbledygook caused more and more revulsion with each passing day. Reading the barbaric combinations of half-familiar and alien words, she felt something brewing inside her: within her head, a wasp nest was waking up, and it droned and hummed in distress, searching in vain for an exit.”
Somehow, through sheer will and perseverance, Sasha begins to understand her lessons and takes to them beyond anyone's expectations. And this is where things get really strange and metaphysical. The ending left me puzzling; I had to read it a couple of times and even then I could only guess at what happened. I could compare it to the ending of a couple of movies in recent years but that would spoil it for you. Just suffice to say that it was unexpected.
“’What am I being trained to become?’ The words escaped, surprising her.
“’Too early, my girl. It’s too soon for you to know. Right now, you are still a slave of a framework, a plaster mold with a hint of imagination. With memory, with a personality… You will be changing not only from the inside but… you will undergo all sorts of changes…’”
Apparently Vita Nostra is the first of the Metomorphosis series. The sequels will deal with the same theme, but with different characters.