Well, that escalated quickly

I won't say what makes the ending of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender particularly troubling, except to say that some readers believe it should come with a trigger warning.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
I'm not someone who thinks that authors should worry about hurting sensibilities. Some stories will demand suicide or rape or abuse as that is the truth of those characters, and it is vitally important that readers are able to approach these painful topics through the lens of fiction. Indeed, for every abuse victim who finds it impossible to pick up a book like A Little Life, there will be others who are able to make sense of their experiences by reading other accounts and exposing themselves to these narratives. As with all culture, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works.

What we should never accept is where these experiences are used just as a McGuffin, something to shock or titillate the reader, something to ramp up the tension without tackling the wider issues that come from such actions. Much as I love Game of Thrones, I do resent the way that horrific abuse of (usually naked) women has sometimes been used as a quick way to get audiences to recognise that someone is 'a bad guy'. It's lazy shorthand, and it damages the social narrative about women, abuse, power and many other things. To pretend otherwise is to be deliberately obtuse.

I say all this because the way ...Ava Lavender finished was problematic for me. Particularly so because I adored much of the book. And I mean really loved it. I would hunt my husband down to read him passages that just sang to me. I would put the book down at the end of a chapter so I could fully absorb it before I read the next part of the story. It was love at first read.

What makes the book so captivating is that it does what all the best magical realism does: it makes the miraculous seem like it could be part of our everyday lives. As we encounter Ava and her beautiful wings for the first time, or as we hear the tales of the ghost that haunts her house and the uncle so beautiful that the whole town once chased his naked body, the reader is fully convinced, able to imagine every detail and fall for each and every one of Walton's characters. Her powers of description are remarkable. To describe these characters in such a way that they can become a true part of a real-world setting despite their marvels is a feat that deserves sincere respect.

Also like all the best magical realism, and fairytales in general, there is a dark edge throughout even the early stages of the story. The book's title doesn't talk about sorrows for nothing. Ava's family faces hardship and tragedy in many forms - and they are certainly all strange and beautiful - and the story has some decidedly macabre moments. I think what makes the climactic tragedy so painful is that it falls outside of this world of fantasy and is an act of violence very much of our own mundane world. It was sickening and painful to read - and should be - but it did feel like a deviation from the tone of what had come before. Even now, I can't decide whether or not I can 'accept' this ending, or if it's one of those shock endings that I've already railed against. Perhaps that's the response Walton wants me to have. I really don't know.

The story does end on a redemptive note, although it is one that seems to suggest that the suffering was an essential part of the process and not something that could have been avoided. (Side note: based on what happens right at the end, surely the whole event was avoidable? Did any other readers throw their hands up in despair at this point?) The strange beauty of the story does prevail, I guess, but the aftertaste was not a good one.

This is nominally a YA book and it does many of the things that I love about contemporary YA: it doesn't talk down to its readers; it doesn't pretend that everything is goodness and light; it features diversity as the norm and not just as a selling point. But, even as a 30-something-year-old, I found TSABSOAL troubling in the extreme. I'm not sure how the teenage me would have felt at the end of it at all. Is this a good thing? Is that uncertainty, that lingering pain, something we want our literature to instil? I still don't know. But few books I've read recently have stayed with me or challenged me the way this one did. And that is definitely something I can get behind.

File under: not for the faint-hearted.


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