Robyn Reviews: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

‘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

Robyn Reviews: Paris by Starlight

‘Paris by Starlight’ is both a gorgeous piece of fabulism and a harrowing tale of human nature. It’s a story you have to be in a good mood to read – otherwise the dark undertones can drag you down into a pit of despair. With everything happening in the world at the moment, it took me some time to read this book – but it’s beautifully written and its observations on human nature are spot on.

This is, at its heart, a story about finding home. Isabelle’s father left when she was six years old, and now – as an adult – she’s come to Paris to find him. But finding her father is harder than she thought, and memories and dreams never quite match up with the real thing. Levon’s home was ripped apart by war when he was a child, and he’s spent years trekking across borders and through refugee camps to find somewhere his family can call home. Against all the odds, he’s made it to Paris – but the life of a refugee is precarious, and places that seem welcoming can switch to hostile in a second.

A city hosts a thousand different worlds, and they snake around each other, their atlases like the scribbling in a child’s notebook

Isabelle is a delightful character. Her love of music shines through every page and illuminates her life, and her adventurous spirit is a joy to read about. However, her life is fraught with difficulty, and it tugs on the heartstrings how trying to do the right thing to often ends in despair. Robert Dinsdale really makes you care about his characters, and it makes the hardships he puts them through truly difficult to read about.

Levon is a man torn between two worlds – the world of his People, whose home has been destroyed, and the world of Paris he’s ended up in. His loyalty to his family and his People is lovely to read about, but it regularly puts him into conflict. Like Isabelle, Levon has a big heart and always tries to do the right thing – but it’s never clear what the right thing is, and when push comes to shove Isabelle is the stronger. That being said, Levon’s relationship with his sister Arina is a light, especially in the second half of the book.

Fabulism is a very hit or miss genre for me – too often it tips over too far into the fantastical and throws me out of the story. ‘Paris by Starlight’ achieves the rare feat of getting the balance between the real and the fantasy just right. The magic elements illuminate the story but don’t overcrowd it, sitting beautifully alongside the smaller tales of ordinary people just getting by. I adored the imagery and the whimsical, impossible nature of everything happening – which made it all the more harrowing when the dream started to shift into a nightmare.

Everyone gets a story, and then that story ends.

The tonal shift in this book is gradual. It starts of beautiful, dreamlike, evoking vibes of books like ‘The Night Circus’ – but things start to shift, and a dark cloud descends over the magic. I found this shift difficult to cope with. This is marketed for fans of Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman, but I’ve never found either authors work to feel quite so insidious or harrowing. It’s exceptionally cleverly done, and I respect the author’s decision to inject some realism – the world, after all, is rarely kind – but I wasn’t expecting it, and at a time of high stress I simply needed a lighter read. I don’t want to criticise the author for what is entirely a personal preference at this moment in time, but I want to be honest about what readers should expect. This is not always a happy book, and the sheer depth of emotion – a sign of how good the writing is – can make the reading experience a rocky road.

Overall, this is an exceptionally written piece of fabulism with gorgeous, evocative imagery – but one that has a darker side that won’t be for everyone. In times as stressful as those we’re currently in, this may well be a marmite read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Cornerstone for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Cornerstone
Hardback: 5th November 2020