Straight off the bat, I loved this book. Go out and find it right now, buy it and read it. Haley Tanner’s debut novel is fantastic and I can’t wait to read more of her work (I’ve been meaning to read this book which has been sitting on my shelf since 2012 so there’s hopefully at least a second novel out by now!). The story of Russian immigrant children, Vaclav and Lena, who live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, near Coney Island, is a story of friendship, magic, hidden horrors, broken hearts and a deep and enduring love.
We first meet Vaclav and Lena when they are ten and nine-and-eleven-months respectively. Vaclav, who worships Houdini whose worn autobiography he has brought with him all the way from Russia, is determined to be the world’s greatest magician. Lena, he is determined, will be his lovely assistant. They practice every day after school at Vaclav’s house, after which Vaclav’s mother, the warm-hearted, hard-shelled Rasia, makes dinner, frequently borscht or something hot and cabbage-related. Vaclav’s home is a poor but happy one, in a quiet, frayed-at the-edges, unfashionable way (this is not an over-romanticised immigrant story, let’s get that straight). Lena’s life, with her cold, unfriendly stripper aunt, in an apartment full of overflowing ashtrays, mould and strange men, is, we feel uneasily, less so. But Tanner doesn’t wallop you over the head with this feeling, which is her genius. She lets it creep into your heart slowly, like it does to good-hearted Rasia.
The character’s voices: small, hard, secretive and quietly bossy Lena; lively, magic-obsessed Vaclav, whose heart is wide open and who loves unreservedly; and kind, tough, proud Rasia, are all alive and fascinating and different. Tanner’s prose is simple, quotidian, deliciously easy to read, and her characters grip you. This book had its hooks in my brain from the first chapter, and I started squirrelling away furtive extra little bits of time to read it whenever I could, much like Lena steals little bits and pieces from Vaclav’s house, a toilet roll here, a slice of bread there (Rasia realises and starts to treat her tiny thefts like a shopping list, leaving extra bits out for her, for this secretive, lonely, frustrating little girl that she loves, dearly, with her huge heart).
This book is excellent, both in its essence, its characters who are authentically, unquestionably alive and flawed, with imperfections you recognise from people you love, or that you share, and in the story itself, which is an absolute page-turner. It’s not a Big Narrative with caps and otherworldly drama – it is everyday, it is just people’s lives, brilliantly documented by a writer with extraordinary sensitivity to the human condition. Even the book’s villains, once they get their say, make you realise that no one is completely good and no one is completely bad. We’re all a combination of the things that made us and the things that shaped us after that.
This is a story of the uncertainty and the coexisting certainty of youth, the rescuing power and also the futility of love in its strongest concentration. It is a wonderful, wonderful story which has sunlight and darkness and borscht and magic and left me tripping over myself to get to the next paragraph, the next page. You know when your eyes start skimming ahead without your volition, desperate to know what happens next? Well yeah, that. It is charming and insightful and memorable and I highly, highly recommend it.