Sunday, April 24, 2011
VACLAV & LENA by Haley Turner from the ARC (forthcoming May 31, 2011) The Dial Press (Random House), 285 pages
Do you remember your first crush? Mine was inexplicably on Scott Campbell, a neighbourhood kid in my Grade 4 class who stabbed me with his thick soft leaded pencil. I remember confiding to my little red diary with its tiny gold lock and key in my careful schoolgirl script, "I love Scott Campbell." It was the first of many unrequited loves and I am doomed to remember his name because I carry that piece of lead with me, under the pad of my ring finger on my left hand.
Vaclav and Lena meet when they are 10 and 9 years old at P.S. 238 in Brooklyn as ESL students who carry the immigrant burden of being obviously different among their American-born English-speaking peers because of their thick Russian accents and their stilted developing language. Vaclav is completely obsessed with the idea of becoming a magician like David Copperfield or Harry Houdini, expecting that Lena will be his assistant because she "is necessary for all the illusions." He is an inveterate list-maker and for me that is part of his charm:
"THINGS THAT ARE:
1. One day being a famous magician
2. Lena being lovely assistant
3. Perseverance towards those goals in spite of any and every obstacle"
At the beginning, Lena buys into Vaclav's fantasy and supports him as he practices simple acts of prestidigitation. However, Lena's troubled home life becomes all consuming: "Vaclav does not know that to Lena, he is a place to go instead of nowhere. If he knew, he might be happy to be her somewhere, but he does not know."
Vaclav's mother takes the two children to Coney Island and to Lena, for the first time in her young life, "it looked as if the world had been coloured in." In that moment there is such hope. But, there is little room for that yet in Lena's world and soon Vaclav's doting mother Raisa makes an alarming discovery and Lena vanishes from Vaclav's life without even a whisper.
Vaclav is devastated, but determined, and many years pass before Lena re-enters his life like a balm.
VACLAV & LENA is a genuine love story. Once you meet both of these quirky, resilient characters, you won't soon want to leave their remarkable world. Haley Tanner has penned a sparkling debut about trust, betrayal and enduring unconditional love.