The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton; Candlewick Press, 301 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
This remarkable, beautifully written debut novel is the tale of a girl born with wings; of her mute twin Henry who can glimpse the future; of several generations of Roux (a French name pronounced “rue” in English) women doomed to be unlucky in love. The novel features richly evocative settings, whether the busy French port of LeHavre of 1904, (“those living in the slums rotted away in a toxic smelly mess of insalubrity, ----, promiscuity and infant mortality,” of Manhattan of the same period, and of Seattle (the author is a native of the Pacific Northwest). There is Ava’s maternal grandmother, Emilienne, whose phrenologist-father Beauregard moves his family from a French village to a paradise he speaks of as “Manhatine.” Several tragedies later, the sole survivor of the family heads West where she and her husband will run a bakery in Seattle. Among the colorful parade of characters is pygmy Mrs. Barnaby Callahoo, obsessed religious nut Nathaniel Sorrows, sweet handyman Gabe who is obsessed with building wings that will actually fly, the evocatively named Wilhelmina Dovewolf. Walton has produced a lovely work of magic realism, but her novel’s very adult sensuality and a devastatingly dark scene definitely merit the 14 and up age rating.
– Jean Westmoore
Hyde by Daniel Levine; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($24)
Readers get a bonus when they purchase Daniel Levine’s “Hyde,” a new take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”: The original thriller is included as a coda in the Levine book. I strongly recommend reading the classic first, then heading into Levine’s novel, which tells the story from the monster’s point of view.
Levine makes it somewhat difficult for contemporary readers by writing in the same style as Stevenson, which sounds stilted and overly formal to modern ears. Still, one can’t deny the powerful, bloody exuberance of the violence and gore, however, which sometimes makes “The Walking Dead” seem like a walk in the proverbial park.
We’re barely on Page 4 before we get a vivid description of a wound that’s likened to “a blood-gorged spider at the heart of its web, its abdomen a-throb. … Look at what he’s left me. What he’s made me do. All those experimental powders, those double injections – and for what? The end is the same.” Welcome to my nightmares, thank you very much.
One doesn’t come to a book like this expecting sunshine and unicorns, and if there has ever been a more depressing, blackhearted and black-smogged version of London in the late 1800s, I’ve yet to read it.
Levine gives Jekyll all sorts of psychological back story that’s missing from the Stevenson original, reaching far into the past to the twisted circumstances that led to Jekyll’s twisted search to explain the duality of man.
In an early scene, we witness Jekyll’s father take a fountain pen and stabs it into his own throat. “Father’s pen” is henceforth carried in Jekyll’s pocket at all times, a nasty little talisman to the man who created both Jekyll and his demonic alter ego. Sexual abuse and a thwarted love affair further contribute to Jekyll’s madness. There’s even a bit of midlife crisis, because Jekyll is turning 50 and stressing about doing things “to make it all seem meaningful.”
Levine’s monster is as philosophical as he is hideous, desperately trying to both free himself from his “host,” Jekyll, while at the same time pondering Big Ideas. “Perhaps the human mind is something more than simply the workings of the brain, of over-adapted muscle matter. Perhaps it is part of something else, some larger, universal consciousness to which we are all connected. We are all one fluid mind, and have only to realize it. … I suppose I am trying to believe in that.”
As the horrors experienced by both Jekyll and Hyde (not to mention those around them) escalate toward the end, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the creature. But overall, the story merely clarifies what Stevenson already, and brilliantly, hinted at in the original. Sometimes too much explanation is just … too much.
– Joy Tipping, Dallas Morning News