Hayley Tanner: Deft take on love's magic

Tapestry of dark and light are skilfully woven, writes Nicky Pellegrino.

Hayley Tanner. Photo / Gavin Snow
Hayley Tanner. Photo / Gavin Snow

It's the easiest thing in the world to write in cliches and stereotypes and there are certain types of books - love stories, novels about immigrants - where it seems so much has already been written that there's nothing fresh left to say anyway.

That's why Vaclav & Lena, by Haley Tanner (Heinemann, $37.99) is such an achievement. This is New Yorker Tanner's début and it's an original and quietly wonderful story about two Russian immigrants who are destined to be together.

Vaclav and Lena meet as children in an English-language class at their Brooklyn school. Vaclav is the son of hard-working immigrants while the orphaned Lena is being raised haphazardly by her aunt Ekaterina, a prostitute.

The children spend all their time together practising the magic tricks they dream of performing on the Coney Island boardwalk as Vaclav the Magnificent and Lena his lovely assistant. They are inseparable, even promising to marry. So far, so sweetly humorous, but the story darkens.

Vaclav's mother, Rasia, loves and pities neglected, skinny Lena. She feeds her borscht, takes her on day trips and walks her home to her filthy hovel of an apartment. When Rasia realises Lena's home situation is far worse than she'd thought she calls the police and the child is spirited away, leaving her son confused and heartbroken.

For the next seven years Vaclav thinks of Lena every day. Even when he grows up and gets a girlfriend, he can't forget his childhood love. Then out of the blue she telephones him, asking for help. But Lena's needs far exceed what even she realises.

There are some improbabilities buried in the plot. Would a child really slip through the net so easily? How likely is it she would turn into a straight-A student or remember Vaclav's phone number? Otherwise the story is powerful, particularly the description of Lena's fractured mental state and the section where her repressed memories flood back.

The best fiction is shaded in dark and light and Tanner has done a deft job with that.

She has also captured her characters' accents without overdoing it - there's nothing more irritating than an excess of broken English.

Best of all, her characters are real people with rich inner lives and multi-layered personalities. And there are some brilliant vignettes, such as the old Russian women shopping for groceries, and terrible Mrs Yablokov who finds her pleasure in other people's sadness

Tanner is only 28 and already a widow, after her husband, Gavin, died of melanoma. Perhaps the maturity and sensitivity of her writing owes something to what she has been through, or maybe she always had the depth to write like this.

Whatever the case, this tender and quirky novel about the magic of love is well worth discovering and I'll be keeping an eye out for whatever the very gifted Tanner comes up with next.

- Herald on Sunday

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