Reviewed by Saima S. Hussain

IT’S hard to believe that this is Haley Tanner’s first novel. The ease with which she grabs the reader’s attention right from the get-go, right from the dedication in fact, is rarely the stuff of young debut authors. “Gavin, the very best husband a girl could have, you are still my rising sun.” Still? Why still? How still? “You were always on every page on this book, and now you’re part of the big, wild, gorgeous universe, too. I know you’re having fun out there, I can feel it. I love you.” Oh.

The young Gavin Snow died after a six-year battle with cancer, and just months before his wife’s novel was published. Perhaps this explains why she is able to express each individual emotion — despair, anxiety, trauma, and gut-wrenching fear — with so much eloquence and intensity.

Take, for example, the scene where Lena hides in the bathroom during a panic attack. “Lena looks at a spot on the bathroom floor between her shoes. She likes this spot. This spot is ambiguous, and she feels a kinship with this spot. The spot is either dirt on the tile or part of the speckled design of the tile that was intended to hide dirt. It does not hide dirt; it makes dirt ambiguous. Is this spot dirt or a spot? The tile has not tricked Lena into thinking the floor is clean, not at all. The floor looks both dirty and ugly. Lena wonders if she will remember this spot forever. It looks to her like the most important spot she has ever seen.”

And then again, much later in the narrative, when Lena admits: “But of course the time passes; it is one of the truths of the universe; No matter how much pain, how much joy, how much nervousness, how much anxiousness, how much love, how much fear, how much itching, how much scratching, how much fever, how much falling, time passes.”

Vaclav and Lena are members of Brooklyn’s Russian émigré community. While Vaclav enjoys a secure childhood living with working-class parents pursuing the American dream, his classmate and beloved Lena has never known security or a childhood. An orphan, she lives with an aunt who is almost never at home. The only maternal influence she knows comes from Vaclav’s mother, Raisa. It is difficult to decide who is more heroic of the two. Lena, who bears frequent hunger pangs with the stoicism of someone who has never known any different. Or Raisa, who guesses that something is very wrong at the aunt’s house and does all she can to help the proud little girl in many little ways, including helping her to keep up the pretence that all is well and just as it should be.

But Raisa’s instinctive kindness towards the neglected and too thin Lena sometimes conflicts with her love for her son and her hopes for his better future in a new land. She is not entirely sure that she wants Vaclav — who sees himself as a struggling amateur magician — to spend so much time with Lena after school. Even so, she accepts the fact that her boy is consumed by his two great passions: The Magician’s Almanac and Lena.

Raisa’s mixed feelings are evident when she takes the two on an outing to Coney Island: “As she watched him walk out into the big American crowd, under the big American roller coasters, she felt the world spinning wildly away from her, and she sat and cried because she was happy and sad that he did not look back, because of how much she loved his little body and his awkward cowlicky head and that tiny rib cage, and the way that he knew, already, to take a girl’s hand if she was afraid.”

Emotions rule this novel, but in a good way. There were many times when the emotions expressed proved so overwhelming that one simply had to close the book and push it away for a while. All in an effort to create some much-needed distance between the powerful narrative and oneself.

It’s not just the characters in the story that undergo emotional upheavals. A certain feeling of dread never quite leaves the reader, who turns each new page with the fear that something enormously tragic is about to happen to poor Lena.

And then the dreaded day finally does arrive. Lena disappears without a trace, leaving a shell-shocked Vaclav reeling in the aftermath. It isn’t until several years later, on the day of Lena’s 17th birthday to be precise, that he receives an unexpected phone call.

A word of warning for anyone who has ever wanted to try the traditional Russian beetroot-based soup called Borscht. Don’t read this book. Or at least, don’t read it until after you have partaken of Borscht. Because once you have read the very vivid descriptions of it here, chances are that you will never want to set your eyes upon it.

Vaclav & Lena

(NOVEL)

By Haley Tanner

Knopf, Canada

ISBN 978-0-307-39935-9

304pp. Cdn$29.95

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