Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

Do you believe in soul mates? Not the kind glorified in romances but a deep down to the bone connection that goes beyond love to your very existence and without which you might as well forget how to breathe?  Haley Tanner's touching and melancholy debut novel, Vaclav and Lena, captures this kind of intense and focused connection, one forged in childhood, enduring separation, and able to pick up again as if nothing (and everything) had changed.

Both Vaclav and Lena are just children when the novel opens, living in the heart of the Russian community in Brighton Beach. They are the closest of friends, two Russian-American children who attend the same ESL class at school and who are as inseparable as only two otherwise lonely children can be. Vaclav dreams of being a famous magician and having Lena be his lovely assistant and the two of them meet in Vaclav's apartment to practice their act and to be cared for by Vaclav's indomitable, doting, and overprotective Russian immigrant mother, Rasia. But underneath this sweet childhood friendship, there are much darker tones. Vaclav is an only child and much treasured but Lena is an orphan, unwanted and uncared for by her aunt who is a strip club dancer and prostitute. Little Lena is neglected and ignored and has learned to lie and steal and keep secrets, even, or perhaps especially, from those who would care for and protect her.  When Rasia witnesses something she cannot ignore, Lena disappears overnight from Vaclav's life, leaving him bereft and yearning for her. Always in his thoughts, he superstitiously still wishes her a good night every night, for the entire seven years she is gone from his life, from the age of ten to seventeen.

The years of being apart change both Vaclav and Lena as they grow and mature separately. And the narrative follows them through this time of absence, fleshing out not only what goes on in their respective lives in the intervening years but also filling in Lena's babyhood and the early experiences that shaped her into the little girl who was for the child Vaclav as necessary as breathing. And then the narrative moves on again and focuses on the teenaged Vaclav and Lena, their rediscovery of each other, and the endurance of their connection as they come together once again.  And it at this point that Vaclav, ever mindful of his love's fragility, spins some real and tender magic in Lena's new and much changed life.

The novel is a triptych with its three distinct phases in the relationship of our eponymous characters. And impressively, the narrative voice changes in each of the three sections. In the first, much of the dialogue is written just as Russian immigrants to this country would construct sentences given Russian grammar. In the second, there is a coming of age, a maturing voice as both Vaclav and Lena assimilate into American culture in ways that Vaclav's parents have been unable to do fully. And in the third, they are both typical teenagers and yet so very different because of their awareness of who they are and how they fit together. Some of the portrayals of Russian immigrants and culture is cliched but the poignancy of immigrants trying to achieve the American dream through their children (in this case specifically through Vaclav) balances these moments out. And while this tale of soul mates and an abiding love might sound lighthearted, the novel tackles some incredibly dark and terrible topics: abuse, neglect, and abandonment among them. Vaclav and Lena are generally well drawn and while they are precocious beyond their years in the beginning, they end by coming across as much more age appropriate. The ending itself was unexpected but completely in character given how thoughtful and protective Vaclav was from the age of five onward. Tanner has crafted an ultimately engaging novel here.

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