Tag Archives: Brooklyn

The Adventures of Vaclav the Magnificent and his Lovely Assistant Lena – it’s magic

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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.

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Brooklyn – this is the real thing

I recently got myself a library card for the first time in years (the library is now called an ‘ideas store’, which demonstrates how long it’s been since I was last there). What once was a quiet, cool, dusty place of learning is now bright blue, made of glass and full of teenagers flicking through foreign DVDs. (Yes I am aware of how old I sound right about now.) Anyway, the principle is the same. You walk in, you choose a book and they give it to you for free. Genius.

So the first book that caught my eye when I walked in was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I remembered reading one of his previous novels, The Heather Blazing, when I was in my first year at university studying English. I read a lot of books and I forget most of them pretty quickly but The Heather Blazing is one I still remember vividly as being the most haunting portrait of loneliness and imperfect love ever written.

You see, Colm Tóibín is a national treasure kind of author. His prose is so confident and so natural that you know as a reader that he was born to do this. His style is so quiet and unassuming – he doesn’t have to tell you what kind of people his characters are, you find yourself assessing them unbidden. You find you have come to know them from their everyday lives, you can predict them – as though they were friends or family  – not just words on a page.

One thing I found interesting about Brooklyn was how much critical acclaim it received despite its relative slowness. The majority of the book consists of Tóibín setting the scene: Eilis, his protagonist, pottering round her hometown of Enniscorthy, Eilis getting used to life in strange, exotic Brooklyn and so on and so forth – indeed, hardly anything dramatic happened until about two thirds of the way through the book. Strangely, that didn’t matter to me nor, seemingly, did it matter to anyone else. Tóibín doesn’t have to shout about Eilis’s mother’s loneliness for the reader to feel it – nor does he have to spell anything else out. His writing is so deeply lovely and his sense of character so precise it is enough that the book is a window into another life, a window into the past.

Brooklyn is a great read, even for people who aren’t big readers. It is charming, understated and memorable all at once. It’s an easy-going, Sunday afternoon type of story with an underlying current of sadness that is typical of Tóibín. He’s never pushy with his words, never overblown with his storylines… that’s why I love him.

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