The Last Days of Ava Langdon has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award, that fact, and it’s striking cover, brought it into my life at this time.
I have yet to read Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers (1942) – it has been on my TBR pile for quite some time though. Reading O’Flynn’s fictionalised account of Langley’s last days has increased my desire to read it sooner rather than later.
In O’Flynn’s story, Langdon’s famous book is called The Apple Pickers. Her real life son, Karl Marx is re-named Vladimir Ilyich (yes, really!), but her alter ego remains Oscar Wilde. Both Eve and Ava changed their name by deed poll in 1954 to Oscar Wilde.
Ava is eccentric, mentally unstable and colourful. She would now be labelled as having gender identity confusion. O’Flynn uses flashes of clarity and flashbacks to earlier times to gently reveal her story. His writes with a great deal of affection, empathy and respect for his invented character and her real-life counterpart. Most of the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
O’Flynn mentions in his notes at the back of the book that,
if anything she was probably more addled than I portrayed here.
Which only makes Ava/Eva’s story even more bittersweet and poetic.
O’Flynn shows how her very (over)active imagination acts/reacts to every day events happening around her by using a present tense third person interior monologue.
An example looks a little like this (from pg 20):
Ava’s imagination brings sentience to the world and casts it in a luminous light, like looking at a dragonfly in a bottle. Her hand briefly touches the bark of every tree trunk. For Ava the orchard is a gentle reminder of those glory days when she went fruit picking with Red, the way breakfast is a reminder of every breakfast as, in fact, an echo of the breast. An orchard is a place of whispering, familiar voices. Where are they now. her happy ghosts? Why, alive in her heart, that’s where. How long has the orchard, originally propagated by monks, been here surrounded by bush? Ava does not know, but she offers up a vote of thanks to the old forward-thinking Franciscans who planted it in the first place. Good lads, those chaps. She wonders if she has the heart to be a Franciscan. A vow of silence? Hardly. A vow of genius. Yes, more like it.
Having spent quite a bit of time in Katoomba over the years, I also really loved the walk that Ava took us on through 1970’s Katoomba and Medlow Bath, especially Ava’s evening visit to the the Hydro Majestic which happens to be a significant part of my own story.
O’Flynn is a local to the Blue Mountains. He did an interview with Megalong Books in Leura where he replied to a question about the type of research he did to prepare for this book with,
As Peter Carey says of research, I probably did less than you’d think and more than I’d like.
The Miles Franklin Award stipulates that the,
prize shall be awarded for the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases.
Having read only one of the five shortlisted books I cannot compare literary merit, but The Last Days of Ava Langdon certainly ticks the second criteria very nicely.