As expected this novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, caused some debate as there were differing opinions within our groups. Some members of the group were already fans of the magical realism genre and had enjoyed works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel and Isabel Allende in particular; whereas for others this was their first venture into the genre. Whilst some members loved the figurative language and absolutely adored this book others decided that magical realism is just not a genre that they enjoy.
We began by talking about the age appropriateness of this text. The discussion guide from Walker books states,
This story works on many levels. The suggested activities are therefore for a wide age and ability range. Please select accordingly
and they give ideas from ages Year 7 (12+) and up with links to the curriculum. As a group of teachers and librarians we were quite taken aback by this recommendation and felt quite strongly that this is not a story for younger readers. Even aside from the dark themes and some of the brutal action that takes place it was felt by some that the language and story was just inaccessible to younger readers. The only group we felt that we could teach this to would be a Year 12 extension English class.
This led us to discuss firstly the much debated ending of the novel. We asked each person what they thought happens – does Ava finally feel the freedom of flight, or does she take her own life because she is overwhelmed by all she has lost? We were quite divided on this matter. The members who felt that she gains her wings argued that the prologue states that an older Ava (March 2014) is narrating past events therefore she could not have died,
The following is the story of my young life as I lived it …
It was also believed that it was her fear that held her back from flying beforehand and after her tragedy her mortal fear has been stripped away and she now has the courage to fly. It was suggested that Ava can find her happiness in life, because Ava chooses to love a good man who returns her love, in contrast to all the other women in her family who had made unwise choices. Ava’s glimpse of Rowe arriving home, after she has read his declaration,
I loved you before, Ava. Let me love you still
saves her (interesting to look at that from a feminist literature perspective!) and cements her resolve to break free.
The readers who felt that she had succumbed to dark thoughts argued that once Emilienne had died there was no further reason for Ava to pull herself out of the darkness and that the arrival of the family ghosts at Emilienne’s deathbed is a premonition of death for the other family members. Some felt that the many experiments that Gabe had undertaken to get Ava to fly were a foreshadowing of her failure to fly, thus when she leaps and unfolds her wings she is destined to fall. Some felt that her outstretched white wings reflected her salvation; for others they represented her sacrifice.
Love in all its countless forms: unrequited, lost, forsaken, brutal, selfless, selfish, abusive, passionate, desperate and familial is explored under the theme – “Love makes us such fools.” We noted that the women in this family are cruelly rejected by men because they are too quick to give all of their heart to men who do not appreciate them. We spent some time discussing the various family members and their experiences with the members of the opposite sex and the pain and regret that is described in great detail. We also commented on the wry humour that Walton employs, particularly when describing Emilienne noticing 18 children over 12 blocks who share Satin Lush’s mixed eye colouring.
There were some points of the novel that we agreed could not be logically explained – for some readers it was difficult for them to get past the idea that Ava was born with wings or that Pierette had turned into a canary – yet we thought that birds and feathers are a motif that occurs many times throughout the novel. The connection and parallels between Fatima – the earlier occupant of the house – and Ava’s family was also debated and some were confused by the intrusion of this character’s story into the narrative. We also commented that although Henry had been trying to warn the family of the impending doom and that he alone could see the ghostly family members we wondered why they had not tried to save Ava earlier – their attack on Nathaniel at the end is too little, too late, for Ava.
Some of us were absolutely blind-sided by the brutality of the attack on Ava by Nathaniel and had to read the passage several times because the language, which is so beautiful, masks to some extent the horror of the event. We were all shocked when her wings were hacked off and some commented that our horror really showed how we, as readers, were convinced that she did indeed have wings. This is probably a testament then to the quality of the writing that we were so engaged with the characters. The ‘Norman Bates’ type character of Nathaniel Sorrows was discussed at great length and we talked about other examples of psychopaths who had Messiah complexes – we wryly noted that it was often linked to the way their mothers had raised them to believe they were so special until they believed it themselves!
The extraordinary number of minor characters with all their unique idiosyncrasies and their side narratives made it difficult for some readers to keep track of who was who. At times some of us felt that the characters were introduced almost as a distraction. We agreed that the names such as Laura Lovelorn, Satin Lush, Cardigan Cooper, Wilhelmina Dovewolf, Marigold Pie and René Roux were unusual but also evocative of their personalities. The narrative structure of this multi-generational saga was also confusing for some – although Ava is introduced in the prologue her story does not truly begin until well into the novel. Some felt then that the title itself was misleading. In the prologue Ava states,
Of the stories and the myths that surrounded my family and my life – some of them thoughtfully scattered by you perhaps – let it be said that, in the end, I found all of them to be strangely, even beautifully, true.
We debated then the reliability of Ava as a narrator, particularly when relating as ‘facts’ the events of her family that occurred before she was born.
One of the most appreciated aspects of the novel was the language, particularly when it applied to food and settings. Paragraphs such as,
The first of many autumn rains smelled smoky, like a doused campsite fire, as if the ground itself had been aflame during those hot summer months. It smelled like burnt piles of collected leaves, the cough of a newly revived chimney, roasted chestnuts, the scent of a man’s hands after hours spent in a wood shop
are typical of Walton’s expressive language throughout the novel. At times, some readers thought the language was overdone and the comment was made that yes it is beautiful – but what does it really say? Others were very impressed with the imagery and lyricism. Walton certainly knows how to write similes,
Summer rain smelled like newly clipped grass, like mouths stained red with berry juice – blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. It smelled like late nights spent pointing constellations out from their starry guises
Fate. As a child, that word was often my only companion. It whispered to me from dark corners during lonely nights. It was the song of the birds in spring and the call of the wind through bare branches on a cold winter afternoon. Fate. Both my anguish and my solace. My escort and my cage.
Finally, one of the characteristics of the novel that was appreciated by most of the readers was the idea of difference and acceptance – in this book almost every character is different in some way. We noted that difference begets fear as Rowe remarks to Ava,
and that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.
Walton clearly explores the concept that much of the sorrow that the family experiences occurs because of the way others treat their differences.
This is indeed an unusual book. In summary we agreed it is a beautifully written debut novel, intended for much older teens or adults, written in a unique style of magical realism that is certainly not for every reader.