John Irving – Avenue of Mysteries
Published in 2015
Read from February 16th to March 11th
Sometimes, when reading a new book, you’re just hooked from the start and can’t put it down. That’s not the experience I had with Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving, but I still ended up absolutely loving it. It did take me quite a while to really get into the story and feel “comfortable” with the characters and and the writing style, but once I was there, in the zone so to speak, I was so engaged.
Avenue of Mysteries is set around Juan Diego, a “dump kid” from Mexico and the people around him. We follow him as a kid in Mexico, and as grown up and middle-aged, traveling to the Philippines. As a young boy we see him with his sister living as dump kids, with a range of interesting characters surrounding them, including their father-like figure; the dump boss, the loving and caring catholic priest who whips himself, the transvestite prostitute who becomes a dear friend, and even the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe play vital parts. The adult Juan Diego is a writer, visiting one of his former students, whom he both loves and hates spending time with, while also meeting two mysterious women on his travel.
The transitions between young and adult Juan Diego are very fluent and there is a lot of back-and-forth throughout the story, almost like a dream where you are never quite sure where you are. A very clever writing choice, as dreams play an important part in this novel. Juan Diego is often transferred back to his childhood in his dreams, but as a child there is also a lot of talk about the future. In a way, even when we are with him in his present moment there is always something dream-like about his surrounding. In Avenue of Mysteries there is a constant fluidity between realism and mysticism, which can make us doubt what is really happening, and how trustworthy is Juan Diego actually as a narrator?
One of Irving’s strongest qualities as a writer in my opinion has always been his characters. In this novel the most interesting character by far is Lupe, Juan Diego’s sister, who is in my opinion almost as much as a main character as he is, though not the narrator. She is the one sets the wheels in motion for pretty much everything that happens of importance, and shapes the characters around her. Being a mind-reader, yet only talking in a tongue Juan Diego can understand, she understandably makes people around her a bit uncomfortable, and perhaps the reader as well. Encountering Lupe’s straight out magical abilities in an other-wise realistic world sets the tone for what sort of story this is. Perhaps this is an example of why I personally needed some time to get into the story, my brain needed to adjust to what I was reading, as it doesn’t fit straight in with what most people would expect.
But back to Lupe: A young girl with mind-reading abilities and the gift of sensing future events, who speaks a completely nonsense language. She hates the Virgin Mary and what she represents, is very hot-heated and tends to go on babbling for ages about what upsets her, crying out completely inappropriate things for a little girl. What’s not to love? She is also a very sad character though, being so exposed all the time to everyone’s private thoughts in a very grown-up world, and being too young to fully understand them, she mostly interprets them perhaps worse than they really are, which of course has a big effect on her as a person.
As you understand, I truly loved Avenue of Mysteries, but that is not to say it is without flaws. The “danger” of having two main timelines in a story is that the reader usually will end up with a strong favourite, in my case the young Juan Diego’s story, so even though I enjoyed reading everything, I often found myself hoping we’d soon go back to my favourite storyline. The book is also just a tad too long in my opinion, some passages and chapters could have been shortened somewhere among the 460 pages. But all in all, a very good book that I recommend strongly.