June 2011

A magician discovers real magic

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Haley Tanner’s debut novel is a wistful, honest story of friendship and first love as they blossom in the lives of two Russian immigrant children trying to make their way in the confusing new world of modern-day Brooklyn.

Spurred by the accomplishments of his idols Houdini and David Copperfield, 10-year-old “Vaclav the Magnificent” spends hours after school in his bedroom with his assistant, “the Lovely Lena,” practicing illusions from The Magician’s Almanac. Vaclav’s Holy Grail isn’t television or Broadway; it’s the Coney Island sideshow, his certainty he’ll succeed there fueled by a conviction that “sometimes a young magician must remind himself that his dreams are written in the stars.” He’s voluble and enthusiastic; Lena is quiet, her behavior displaying all the signs of a troubled soul.

Vaclav’s and Lena’s lives are moving in opposite directions, and the reasons for that quickly become evident. Raised by striving parents, it’s easy to see Vaclav someday making the long climb from his working-class roots to the professional class. Lena has been relegated to what loosely might be called the “care” of a woman Vaclav’s mother derisively refers to as “the Aunt,” who leaves the girl to fend for herself while she works in a strip club. Eventually, Lena is removed to a safe new home, wrenching her out of Vaclav’s life, and the scars of her early years haunt her.

Seven years after their forced separation Vaclav and Lena reconnect, and as teenagers their relationship is complicated more by their physical and emotional attraction than by whether Vaclav will be able to master the Ancient Egyptian Sarcophagus of Mystery. As the novel’s affecting climax reveals, his most amazing trick has nothing to do with sleight of hand. Instead, it’s one that reminds us vividly of the enduring power of a great story and of the way fiction sometimes lights the way to truth.

In Vaclav & Lena, Tanner has created two appealing protagonists whose troubles may not be the stuff of high drama, but whose triumph over them is what real magic is all about.

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