Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

Leslye Walton's début novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is first and foremost a family saga, the winding and tragic story of four generations of the Lavender family. We start with narrator Ava's great-grandparents, Beauregard Roux and "Maman" who emigrate from France to a squalid "Manhatine" tenement in the early twentieth century. After a hefty bout of tragedy, Rouxs' daughter Emilienne (Ava's grandmother) marries a deformed baker in heartbroken haste and moves to Seattle. There, she settles into a blue-painted house with an infamous, if slightly mythical history, becomes a witch in the eyes of the neighbours and takes over her newly-deceased husband's bakery (and makes it better than ever). Emilienne is haunted by her dead siblings and believes her heart to be broken beyond repair. She gives birth to a daughter, Viviane, Ava's mother. Viviane's life is no less tragic, filled with unrequited love, betrayal and single-parenthood, wasted potential and isolation. She has twins, Harry and Ava, and none of them leave the house for years.

We dip in and out of the three women's lives, living together in the blue house. We find out more about the emotional wounds that they've suffered for love, but it’s Ava who is at the heart of this story- she narrates, though doesn't appear herself until about half way in. She’s a normal girl, but born with wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. Whether this makes her an angel, bird or girl, nobody seems to be sure. What it does make her is different, so Viviane hides her away. She hides herself away too, out of the way of the man that loved her but spurned her for a more socially acceptable bride.

The novel explores love in all its countless and destructive forms: unrequited, lost, forsaken, brutal, selfish, abusive, desperate. If there's one thing the Lavender family have learned it's that "Love makes us such fools". But there's hope there too; familial love, passion, unwavering love and love that is thoroughly trampled on but refuses to die. Even if sometimes it would be better off doing so.

Quite an epic and mythology-filled narrative, the book is full of the passage of time, the nature of mortality, drama and woe, odd encounters and quirky characters. There's a sort of fatalistic streak to it too- the idea that lives are preordained and will unravel as intended, regardless of a person's intent or decisions. It certainly seems that the Lavender family are doomed to repeat the same mistake- being rejected by men that they are too quick to commit themselves to, men that don't appreciate them. Ava, thankfully seems able to have broken the cycle, but at a horrific and brutal cost.

It's beautifully written prose, lyrical and filled with sensory description and beautiful, mystical imagery. An absolute joy to read, despite some pretty horrific scenes that jar with the coming-of-age narrative of the rest of the book. But people do so like to destroy the things they love. Ava really is a compelling little narrator; headstrong, brave and never defeated. Her voice is strong and clear, she accepts her fate without submitting to it in a way that's characteristically stoic, but she's incredibly warm and funny in places too. A very memorable character.

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