Vaclav and Lena: Haley Tanner
June 20, 2011 | Reviews
Vaclav and Lena, by Haley Tanner, is a gem of a book. I hesitate to describe such a unique book in such a clichéd manner, but it truly fits. It has a quiet, understated elegance that becomes more evident the closer you examine it. This is a book that manages to pack so much emotion into a relatively small space without ever seeming melodramatic. Vaclav and Lena makes you feel so much at once; any given passage may make you feel joy and sorrow simultaneously. Under it all, Vaclav and Lena has a loveliness that is really quite rare.
Vaclav and Lena chronicles the friendship and love of two Russian immigrants who moved to America when they were young (technically, Lena was a baby). At the start of the novel, they are both about ten-years-old. Vaclav is a bright child who idolizes Harry Houdini and is determined to become a great magician in his own right, called Vaclav the Magnificent. Lena is a shy, quiet girl who is Vaclav’s constant companion and magician’s assistant. They sit in Vaclav’s room for hours day after day, planning the grand magical act that they will one day perform for an undoubtedly adoring crowd. Lena’s home life is less than ideal (she lives with her aunt who is of dubious morality), so she is all too happy to spend time at Vaclav’s. His mother, Rasia, is as good as a real mother to her. Their bonds seem unbreakable, but slowly cracks begin to develop. Lena falls into friendship with a more popular crowd, and is suddenly embarrassed to be seen with Vaclav. Vaclav, determined to keep their act together, volunteers to do her homework if she will continue to practice their magic tricks. They manage to strike an unsteady balance between their different ambitions, but it doesn’t last long. One day, Lena disappears. Vaclav does not know where she goes, or why; but he still whispers “Good night, Lena” to the air every night till he actually talks to her again, seven years later. Their reunion creates a swirling vortex of emotion that finally rips the veil off of the past.
You could try to categorize this book as a love story or an immigrant story, but it is really simply a human story. Like life itself, it can be sometimes funny, sometimes awkward (like the scene where Vaclav’s father walks in on him getting out the tub and makes a wrong assumption about what Vaclav was doing), sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and yes, sometimes incredibly dark. It reflects the human experience so well, but never feels cliché. Tanner’s prose has a simplicity that mimics the characters’ imperfect English. She creates beauty with her words, but is never too flowery. This allows the story to shine through, unobscured. Her characters almost do not seem like characters; after awhile they start to feel wondrously real, like you could reach out and touch Lena’s messy black curls. Tanner is adept at shaping both the story and the characters so that they feel realistic.
I enthusiastically recommend this book, and hope you pick up a copy as soon as you can.
“Rasia thought that this Houdini person probably drove his mother to an early grave, worrying her with all his death-defying feats and doing Chinese water torture, and was not someone Vaclav should be so interested in. But Vaclav wanted to hear a story about a little boy who came to America and became a big, brave, magical man, and this she understood.”