‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’ chronicles the life of the Roux family, including the titular Ava Lavender Roux. The Roux’s all have one thing in common – they’re what other people would consider strange. One turns into a bird without any explanation. Another has such an exquisitively sensitive nose she can immediately tell where you’ve been and what you’ve been eating. One struggles to remain corporeal and eventually vanishes entirely. Ava, the narrator, is arguably the strangest of them all – she was born with the wings of a bird. The story ranges from sad, to happy, to hopeful, but at its heart is a beautiful story about humanity and all its complexities.
The cover states that “Love makes us such fools.” This is a thread that runs throughout the novel, making up the underlying theme. There are many different kinds of love – romantic love, sexual love, unrequited love, familial love – and all our shown in their complexity.
Ava’s family have always hidden her away, knowing that her differences make her vulnerable. However, Ava – like the birds she resembles – longs to be free, and eventually she must venture out into the wider world. There, she experiences all its joy – but also its cruelty, especially to those who are different. Everything comes to a head the night of the Summer Solstice – a night Ava will never forget.
Ava is a great character – curious but also exceptionally sensible, a rare trait in a protagonist. For most of the book she’s a teenager, and its fascinating seeing how her differences and family’s attitude juxtapose with the normal worries of a teenage girl. She has some adorable interactions with Roux, a friend’s brother – and whilst her best friend Cardigan doesn’t always come across well, it’s nice to see a close friend and confidante in a fantasy book who’s actually true to her word. I also love Ava’s mother Viviane – she makes some terrible life choices, but she always intrinsically wants the best for people. It’s impossible not to root for the Roux’s to find happiness. The other brilliant character is Henry – a brilliant surprise who I will leave for you to discover.
In places, this can be quite a dark novel, so don’t go in looking for a light, whimsical read. It makes liberal use of metaphors – mostly beautiful, occasionally clunky – but there are awful scenes as well as lovely ones. The world is not always kind to those who are different.
“To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel”
I do have a few issues with the book. While the writing style mostly works, in some places it goes from lyrical to contrived. Certain phrases are jarring and throw you out of the story. It also suffers from being incorrectly marketed by its own prologue – Ava Lavender in the almost-present describing how the following is her life story. In truth, it’s her family’s life story; the book ends with Ava still a teenager, so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually complete. The ending would feel more final without the prologue, which isn’t really required for the rest of the novel. It should be a beautiful and poetic finale, but given the setup and expectations it doesn’t work as well as it’s meant to.
Overall, this is a recommended read for fans of magical realism, fabulism, and stories about the complexity of human nature and love – with the caveat that it does get dark at times.
Content warning: Rape and sexual assault
Published by Walker Books
Paperback: October 1st 2014