Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vaclav & Lena ~ Haley Tanner

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I got Vaclav & Lena a couple of weeks ago.  It's an Advanced Reading Copy that Random House was good enough to send to the college bookstore where I work.  As my first ever ARC, I was super-excited to read and review it before the rest of the world got a chance to, and thus decided to put Middlemarch on hold in order to accomplish just that.  According to a seal on the cover, it was supposed to be released on May 31.  When I walked into work on Tuesday, on my way down to the textbook dungeon, I moseyed past the new release table (as is my habit) to see what we'd gotten in since last Thursday, when what to my wondering eyes should appear?  Vaclav and Lena, in all their early release glory.  The literary world has beaten me yet again.  Ah well.

About the book itself: Vaclav & Lena is Haley Tanner's first novel.  It recounts the early lives of two Russian immigrants, Vaclav & Lena, who are thrust together as young children, torn apart a few years later, and finally reunited, as in love with one another as ever.  At times disturbing, Vaclav & Lena is mostly a sweet story about the challenges of immersing oneself into a foreign culture and the various ways that people love.

Tanner attempts, and rather impressively, to take the unfathomable, unspoken language of thought and put it into words, and often words that are unfamiliar to the novel's Russian characters.  Though this can tend to awkwardness, for the most part she pulls it off fairly well:
"Lena looks at a spot on the bathroom floor between her shoes.  She likes this spot.  This spot is ambiguous and she feels a kinship with this spot." (156)
Lena sees this spot on the floor and thinks for pages about how it's just one of so many spots that she has seen, but this one feels special, though she will probably just forget it like all the others.  She tells herself that she will remember every aspect of it - size, shape, color, location - and not let it escape her.  Then she is distracted, and we never hear of the spot again.  I love when authors put those things we think but never discuss down on paper, partially because it's so apt and partially because it makes such a great link between the reader and the characters and other readers and other people, and this is one of those moments.  We've all (or at least I have) obsessed about such minutiae, just to forget it, though we never talk about it because we think we are alone.

My only issue with the novel is probably the narrative voice.  It seems to be omniscient, as well as having aspects of direct and free indirect discourse, which can be a bit jarring, particularly because the characters' stilted English (especially in the earlier half of the novel) sometimes carries over into the narration and sometimes doesn't.  There was also one bit back before Lena knew any English that I thought was flashback until people started speaking English and I realized it was just the narrator telling the story.  This could be a bit distracting at times, but in no way made me want to not read the novel and it got better as the novel went on and the characters knew English better.  It also could have been edited to be a bit clearer since the ARC's were released, so maybe you will never know what I'm talking about.

A couple of lines I really loved (though technically I'm not supposed to quote... I will correct if necessary):

"How is it, Vaclav thinks, that these people, prostitutes, crazy street people, homeless men on the subway, they see sometimes straight to the truth, no matter what?" (269)

"The inside of the house is full of a warm light, like Lena's mom has somehow learned to magically make lightbulbs out of clementines." (280)

Overall, I really enjoyed Vaclav & Lena and look forward to whatever else Tanner chooses to release into the world.

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