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June 11, 2011 12:22 am

Vaclav & Lena

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Vaclav & Lena, by Haley Tanner, William Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 304 pages

 

The precocious 10-year-old-son of Russian émigrés, Vaclav idolises Houdini. In his bedroom, he spends hours practising magic with his beautiful yet fragile assistant Lena. One day, he dreams, the pair will entertain the crowds at New York’s Coney Island. Their destiny is to be together. But a different kind of vanishing act will dominate the boy conjuror’s life. When Lena disappears one day, Vaclav is heartbroken.

Like all the best tricks, Hayley Tanner’s novel leaves you wondering how it’s done. This Brighton Beach Romeo and Juliet should be cloyingly sentimental. Butter wouldn’t melt in the sweethearts’ mouths and even the hardscrabble immigrant setting feels cosily familiar.

What lifts the book above the ordinary are the voices Tanner gives her characters: all youth’s anxiety and hope brilliantly refracted through an uncertain second tongue. Funny, warm and smart – and with a peppery twist that suggests truth and love don’t always sit easily – this is a magical summer read.

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