Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blog Tour Review: Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni

Publisher: Free Press
Date: September 6, 2011
Format: hardback
Acquired: from Free Press Blog Tours
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 290
Reading time: seven days

From GoodReads: Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire. Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself. Through it all, Konstantin plays the piano with inflamed passion: he is transported by unparalleled explorations of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, even as he is cursed by his teachers’ numbing efforts at mind control. Each challenging piano piece takes on a life of its own, engendering exquisite new revelations. A refuge from a reality Konstantin detests, the piano is also what tethers him to it. Yet if he can only truly master this grandest of instruments—as well as his own self-destructive urges—it might just secure his passage out of this broken country.

My review: Wunderkind has so many aspects to it that make it a wonderful, engulfing read. Grozni has a way with words, and his writing is excellent. There's very few books that seriously impact me emotionally, but this was one of them. Sometimes after putting Wunderkind down for the night (and maybe it was just because I was reading late at night that I was so affected or because I'm still an angsty, stressed teenager), the whole loneliness and depression of the characters and setting made me feel like curling up in a ball. Even though I never noticed much plot to the novel, I never thought about this while reading. I was never bored, even though I was reading slower than usual! Grozni also writes about music in a way I've never before thought of it, a way I wish I could view it. Alas, I'm one of the mediocre musicians Konstantin so abhors. 

Wunderkind reads like a (literary) dystopian novel at times, and I've figured out from reading this that a lot of dystopian plots and aspects have probably come from Soviet influences. Like with Holocaust books, I would look at the date Konstantin is writing (1987-89) and wish I could tell the characters to hang on for only one more year or two, then everything would be over.

Unfortunately, the engulfing writing didn't stick with the novel for its entire length. The high emotions lasted for about half the book, then it just gradually ceased to be quite so special. Still, I rank Wunderkind with my other favorite teen bildungsromans - The Body of Christopher Creed, Going Bovine, and Jasper Jones - though its literary flavor sets it apart from these as does its realistic Soviet setting based on the author's own experiences.

p. 102 "I want music to tell me something true. I don't want fantasies and science fiction. And I don't care about fancy chords and the whole extravaganza of the grotesque. I don't get this obsession with newness. It's got to be new, fancy, weird, somehow broken and distorted, never thought of before." OK, so Grozni's really talking about music here, but this quote made me think about a lot of recent literature, namely the darker YA fantasy and dystopian/post-apocalyptic books of the past couple years.

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