Haley Tanner
The Dial Press ($25)

by Erik Wohlrabe

The secret language between best friends is both universal and utterly idiosyncratic to each pair. For the titular characters of Haley Tanner’s debut novel, this language is couched in the vocabulary of magic, codified in endless cascading lists of hopes and dreams, and personified in a nearly unquenchable hunger the two young Russian immigrants have for each other. They share most everything, from secrets and promises to food and help with homework.

Vaclav and Lena meet when they are both five years old. They have spent their formative years in the United States, but have done so cocooned within the confines of Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community. Already four when his family left a crumbling Russia in the early 1990s, Vaclav nonetheless picked up a good deal of English, both from television and from his mother’s efforts to teach him the language of their new home.

Lena has not been as lucky. She spent her early childhood in the care of a babushka who was not her own grandmother, a miserly old woman who spoke only Russian. Lena’s English is still rudimentary when she meets Vaclav. The pair bond at Coney Island, where they sneak into a magic show and are dazzled by The Great Fredini. Vaclav is determined to become a great magician, with Lena by his side as his lovely assistant.

As the duo prepare to perform their own magic act on the boardwalk, events outside the children’s control force them apart. Lena’s home life with a neglectful, absent aunt comes to a head when Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, discovers how poorly the girl has been treated. Lena is sent away, leaving Vaclav broken-hearted by the loss of his friend.

Seven years later, the now-teenage children reunite and find their connection is as strong as ever, ready to blossom into something like love. But the secret of Lena’s past continues to act as a gulf, separating them. When Vaclav discovers the dark answers, he is faced with a decision about what truth to tell his best friend.

Tanner writes with a giddy passion much like young love. Her prose reflects the stilted, eclectic nature of English filtered through a foreign mind, as we see the world through Vaclav’s and Lena’s eyes. This style naturally transitions to a more confident, formal tone as the children age and grow into their American identities.

The author is capable in conveying the confused emotions of childhood, where things that seem small and insignificant to adults take on dwarfing importance to a child. Childhood rituals take on almost totemic powers, and love and hatred can seem to coexist in the same thought. Taylor presents a sterling example of the paradoxical clarity and confusion of childhood early in the book when Lena is served dinner at Vaclav’s home by Rasia and becomes ill:

The borscht is the color of a dress a queen might wear. The borscht floods Lena’s bowl. The borscht is the color of blood. The borscht is the color of blood, and in it are not pieces of meat, but moles that have fallen off the many chins of Rasia. Once Lena’s mind has taken this turn, she cannot turn back.

She also writes with unusual clarity about the difficulties of motherhood, and how mothers perceive themselves in relation to their children. The distance that grows between mother and child is especially hard on Rasia, who is faced with watching her son grow more and more American, shucking bits of the past his parents have raised him in:

When he was a little boy, they discovered places together. . . .
Now that they do far fewer things together, he is always doing something where she doesn’t know the place. This is something that can make a bruise on a mother, but Rasia tells herself that this is not so different from regular parents of regular American teenagers. But a little, she knows, it is very different.

Vaclav & Lena carries the blessings and burdens of being a first novel. Tanner writes with a hungry ferocity, propelling the reader forward; however, she almost burns the story out in the last act, leaving too many revelations in the hands of a hitherto untrustworthy and largely silent character. Even so, Tanner shows herself to be a writer of marked ambition and comforting humanity, pulling off a wonderful magic trick of story and character in the process.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011