“A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.”
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko changed the way I see the world. This book inspires obsession. My awareness of existence after reading it feels reframed somehow. I feel like I’ve stepped over the bounds of reality and entered some transcendental state. I can’t stop turning it over and over in my mind.
This novel is nearly impossible to encapsulate in a synopsis. It is about many things: words, time, delusion, transformation, debts, the power of fear. The disconnect between people who have changed in opposite ways. The unspoken rules that govern us. Seeing your own reflection in other people with whom you’ve left a piece of yourself. It gets more abstract as it goes along in incredibly inventive ways that seem logical and matter-of-fact when you’re reading. It’s like dreaming, where everything makes sense in your sleep but sounds ludicrous when you’re trying to describe it to someone else.
Vita Nostra is many genres in one: suspense, fantasy, Gothic fiction, psychological terror. It has some of my favorite horror elements: a suspicious school—along with its drama and intrigue and complex character relationships—and the discovery of deeper, sinister meaning in seemingly innocuous situations.
Sasha is the perfect main character for this story. Her development is one of my favorite parts of the novel. At the end of the book, Sasha is completely different in many ways than how she was at the beginning, but she’s still the character I had grown to respect and care about despite her increasing detachment, single-mindedness, and isolation from reality. She is resilient, determined, inquisitive, and strong-willed. The side characters also have surprising and realistic depth. They aren’t just there to create cheap conflict.
The prose isn’t the quotable type with specific eloquent lines. Rather, every sentence works together leading into the next, and each idea is illustrated deliberately. It’s satisfying, seamless, and spellbinding:
“Sasha thought of life as a collection of identical days. To her, existence consisted of days, and each day seemed to run like a circular ribbon—or, better yet, a bike chain, moving evenly over the cogs. Click—another change of speed, days became a little different, but they still flowed, still repeated, and that very monotony concealed the meaning of life…”
The translation from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey is excellent. It captures the gloomy and stark atmosphere perfectly. The way Vita Nostra is written makes every moment feel constantly ominous, even when nothing outwardly disturbing or uneasy is happening. That’s another aspect that makes the book stand out to me. A typical terror element is the inability to communicate with the outside world, but this novel subverts it. Telephones are always accessible. However, the problem isn’t that Sasha can’t leave—instead, she realizes that she doesn’t want to. I have only experienced this same feeling of understated dread in a book once before in Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Preußler, which is another outstanding, transfixing masterpiece.
Vita Nostra made me feel like I was spinning through a supercut of scenes from a forgotten silent film, the muffled motion in my head feverish and unnerving. This book is otherworldly in a mesmerizing way. It’s hard to grasp that real people wrote it. I cannot recommend this highly enough. It took me to another world, then sent me back to my own, and everything feels different now.