Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

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Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: This is a sweet, engrossing story - once I'd picked it up I didn't want to put it down.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: June 2011
Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0434020447

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Vaclav and Lena are both children of Russian immigrants, growing up in Brooklyn. Vaclav dreams of becoming a fantastic magician, with his friend Lena as his assistant, and as children they practise their routine together, making lists of the things they'll need, the costumes they will wear and the tricks they will perform. Vaclav is confident and happy, but Lena is quiet, withdrawn and struggles with speaking English. Yet Vaclav believes, always, that they are destined to be together. Even when Lena disappears one day and is gone from his life for many years still he hopes that, somehow, he will find her again.

This story, for me, was one of those wonderful stories that as I started reading I knew almost instantly that I would love it. Much of the book is quite child-like since we see things from Vaclav's point of view and fortunately I adored Vaclav. Tanner manages to convey his Russian accent very cleverly through his speech, and his passion for magic and his adoration of Lena are both very endearing. He's a very intense little boy. He knows what he wants and he's determined to get it. We get to see him as both a young boy and then later when he is an older teenager, and I felt the author managed to make him grow up convincingly - he still felt like the same person.

I liked the style very much. The book is divided into sections, with each section containing short chapters or segments. There are lots of lists in the first section, since Vaclav is an obsessive maker of lists, and there's a lot of humour with the two of them practising their routine, plotting to perform and figuring out how to build the equipment they need to perform some of the more advanced tricks. Each little segment has its own, unusual heading, such as Vaclav Does Excellent Thinking In The Bubble Bath! The Russian accent and phrasing that infuses the book's language remains consistent and believable and adds both humour and warmth to the writing.

Vaclav's mother, Rasia, is another wonderful character. She is a large, dominating woman who loves her son fiercely and grows to love Lena too. She wishes to help Lena in any way that she can, seeing that she's obviously a damaged, fragile little girl. Yet the situation becomes complicated since it is by trying to help Lena that she inadvertently removes her from Vaclav's life, and that's something he finds very hard to forgive his mother for.

The mystery of where Lena went is explained later on, which is a good thing since I was less enamoured with Lena's character than with Vaclav's until I knew more about her. The discovery later in the book of what she's been through in life helps to make sense of her behaviour as a child. Her story is disturbing, but very sensitively handled, and somehow the author's light touch manages to make Lena's tragedies bearable to read. Tanner captures their two very different experiences of being immigrants to a new country, showing the trials and hardships they both face, the issues they must deal with and, in amongst that, captures the magic of their friendship and the bond between them.

I found the book very moving, sweet and tender, and it was a compelling read as I just had to know what happened to both Vaclav and Lena. I would definitely recommend it and look forward to reading more from the author!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: You might also be interested in Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.

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Buy Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner at


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