Review by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Pi Day («День числа Пи»)
by Nina Dashevskaya, cover design by Vlada Myakonkina (Samokat, 2018), 200 pages
Recommended age 10+
Lyova hears colours and visualises sound and finds it impossible to understand why his school and his grandparents have a problem with his trousers: they’re clearly terracotta not red as they claim. Red is a bright, garish colour but terracotta is completely different.
Highly sensitive to his surroundings and exceptionally intelligent, Lyova struggles with the logic of what’s demanded of him at school and at home, where he lives with his adopted grandparents. Other people just aren’t rational like he is and his difference sets him apart, making him the target of bullies, especially Kirill whose taunts go unchecked. Lyova has never had a close friend besides his patient grandparents and a distant aunt, but he doesn’t so much miss the absence of a close friend as blossom in the presence of those who do come into his life: his classmate Sonya, his piano teacher and family friend Roma, and their new maths teacher – the first to understand Lyova and win his trust, and the first teacher to recognise his needs as a learner.
The only trouble is Sonya is also friends with the bully and will only communicate with Lyova at home via text message, in a tender and inspired exchange that reveals she understands music and maths, and Lyova’s unique perception of his surroundings. So why is she friends with that awful boy? And just as Lyova is starting to find himself in music and find the confidence to approach the piano, Roma is hospitalised. As Lyova’s fragile construct comes crashing down, the maths teacher appears at the right moment to be the friend and support Lyova needs.
In an interesting narrative twist, just as we are getting to know Lyova and his way of seeing the world, we suddenly shift perspective from ‘Mozart’ to that of his rival, ‘Salieri’. It never made sense when Sonya defended the bully Kirill and insisted he was also smart and a music lover. With all his bluster in class, he never seemed like he could have a sensitive side. But now we learn of his frustration when he realises that everything he feels confident he can do, that annoying ‘Mozart’ can do better. Bitter with jealousy that his childhood friend Sonya should share her affection with Lyova, ‘the freak’, as readers we cannot help but empathise with Kirill and his own struggle to make friends and find the self-confidence he needs. It’s only when Lyova and Kirill are forced to get themselves out of a fix in a disastrous school trip to St Petersburg – don’t worry, it’s more of a soggy incident than a dangerous one – that the two gradually discover they can understand and eventually trust one another.
This clever and captivating novel is the best I’ve read recently at exploring the psychology of friendship and rivalry, how we all too easily misunderstand and prejudge others, and the magic that can happen when we open up and trust somebody with the chance to be a friend.
With its complex structure and playful exploration of maths and music, this novel will be a joy to any early teen who feels more at home with the patterns in nature and the universe than with that most illogical thing – other people.
About the author
Nina Dashevskaya (Нина Дашевская) is a prize-winning Russian writer for children and young adults, and a professional violinist. She is twice winner of the Kniguru Prize for Books for Young People: «Я не тормоз» (I’m not slow) won in 2017 and «Около музыки» (About Music) won in 2015. Her books for young readers have been shortlisted several times for this and other prizes. You can find more about her books here on Livelib.ru.