By Light We Knew Our Names

When I found this collection of magical realism vignettes, I was certain that I would love it like I did Like Water for Chocolate and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Instead, the thirteen short stories left me wanting – though for exactly what, I cannot articulate. Coming of age, parental relationships, death and feeling trapped were recurring themes, and Anne Valente explores them with an abundance of symbolism. But I was often left wondering what it is that she actually wants to evoke with the sometimes bizarre supernatural elements.

We have girls turning into bears in Dear Amelia, and while I appreciated the ideas of indignant hope, of shame and loneliness, of fighting against the inevitable, the final message of burrowing into dens and ignoring it all failed to strike any emotional chord. On the other hand, To a Place Where We Take Flight and Terrible Angels had poignant passages, but were otherwise unremarkable. The plot developments were not particularly original, nor were the perspectives presented by the protagonists. In fact, much of the book was similarly unmemorable, beyond the persistent irritation half the characters seemed to ignite in me. Continue reading “By Light We Knew Our Names”

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

Pain in love is a Roux family birthright.
For Ava Lavender, a girl born with the wings of a bird, it is the key to her fate.

Three things compelled me to buy this book as soon as I flicked through it in the enormous Eslite bookstore in Taipei. First (and I am not ashamed), the cover. Second, the surprisingly witty and unaffected prologue. Third, the sheer abundance of dizzying twists and unanswered questions in just the first chapter. Leslye Walton’s debut is truly exceptional, if also exceptionally heartbreaking.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is most definitely strange and beautiful. And despite the connotations of its title and premise, I did not detect an iota of pretentiousness in the actual novel. Rather, its sepia settings and sumptuous prose are reminiscent of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. And like the critically acclaimed Spanish serial, the primary themes of Walton’s bestseller are also love, lust and the sometimes perplexing relationships that form a family. A multigenerational tale, The Strange and Beautiful paints the tragic affaires du cœur of the titular character’s grandmother and mother with soft, ethereal light. Meandering through their spellbinding narratives, Ava’s own story only begins in chapter nine. Nevertheless, the reverberations of the older women’s broken love lives clearly echo in her fate from the very moment she is born. Even after Ava takes centre stage, her mother and grandmother are still continuing their oscillating journeys of acceptance and emotional liberation.

Two days tearing through the book later, three (again!) aspects of Walton’s mesmerising plot deserve special mentions. The soupçon of French phrases and their seductive je ne sais quoi. The abrupt dips into the fantastical realm that force you to reread sentences again and again. And lastly, the quiet determination that each woman emanated, as they repeatedly rose from the ashes of their taunting misfortunes. But this must be made clear: The Strange and Beautiful is by no means relentlessly or unnecessarily depressing. The tribulations of the female-centred cast were grounded in the real-life predicaments that women and lovers face: violence, infidelity, slander, emotional abuse, being unfairly placed on pedestals, and cowardly adherence to others’ prejudices. Poignant? Certainly. A sentimental tear-jerker? Certainly not.

Bittersweet, haunting, and magical. Read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender for luscious layers of storylines, melting together like Maman’s most delectable feuilletage.

Favourite quote (and de facto motto of the book): “Love makes us such fools.”
Rating: 4/5

It is worth noting here that some readers were confused about the ending. Once you have finished reading the book (and I implore you to), [click Continue Reading to reveal the spoiler]

Continue reading “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender”