The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski (Harper Paperbacks; 400 pages; $14.99).
Reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, one assumes the novel’s author, Rita Leganski, was born and raised in the South. Imagine the surprise upon learning Leganski is from Wisconsin. On frigid and interminable winter nights when she was growing up, Leganski curled up with her favorite authors—tellers of tales from much warmer climes, such as Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Many novelists write what they know, but Leganski composes the stuff of her dreams. And thank goodness for that.
Wildly inventive, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow blends historical fiction with fantasy and lyricism to produce an unforgettable and uniquely Southern story. Like her beloved Southern dramatists, Leganski sets her story in 1920s-1950s New Orleans, bringing the city to life while simultaneously lending the yarn a deeply atmospheric quality. Leganski also has the seemingly effortless skill of narrating her tale from many different perspectives, just as her favored literary figures did.
Most pivotal in Leganski’s story is the central raconteur and titular character, Bonaventure Arrow. Bonaventure is mute. Leganski writes, “Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. But the child was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings….” He “stayed like that, all wide-eyed and hopeful, and continued to keep his silence. “ Bonaventure’s muteness only belies the intensity and commotion inside him. Throughout Leganski’s fictional work, Bonaventure never says a word; yet, Bonaventure speaks loudly and clearly. His deafness is “not a handicap at all but a gift—an extraordinary, inexplicable, immeasurable gift that” allows Bonaventure to hear “what no one else” can.
He is a unique little boy who has a very special way of communing with nature. Through Bonaventure’s acute audible senses, Leganski is able to imbue supernatural elements into her story. One of the ways in which she accomplishes this is through magical realism. Bonaventure can hear “as no other human”being can. By the time he is five, Bonaventure can hear “flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops.”
If those characteristics alone do not make you want to know Bonaventure Arrow, then maybe this will. Bonaventure also has a kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, a widowed servant from Pascagoula, Mississippi. Trinidad plays an important role in the boy’s life and works to ease his burden. Leganski uses her to help guide Bonaventure on a quest that involves his father’s untimely death.
Because Bonaventure is so extraordinary, he knows things others do not. He also sees things others do not, like the ghost of his deceased father, William Arrow. A mysterious man called “The Wanderer” murdered William before Bonaventure was even born. William’s death almost destroyed Dancy, Bonaventure’s mother, who carries around an enormous amount of guilt years after her husband’s death. For Bonaventure, his mother’s feelings of culpability are palpable; he can hear her remorse.
In Bonaventure’s world, colors and flowers are not the only inanimate objects with voices. Long-buried articles from the past call out to the boy, and they demand justice. Bonaventure is the only one who can right earlier wrongs, for he was “chosen to bring peace.” “There was guilt to be dealt with,” Leganski explains in her story, “and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong. And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.” Leganski illustrates the power of personification as a box, pieces of glass, clothing, and a note call out to Bonaventure in anguished voices, lending a great deal of mystery to the work.
Setting is also powerful in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow. Leganski places her story in New Orleans and in the fictional town of Bayou Cymbaline. These locales come to vivid life and actually become characters in Leganski’s tale. The result is a picturesque backdrop, evocative, flavorful, distinctively Southern, and wholly New Orleans.
Leganski’s lucid prose, her crystal clarity, and her magical realism catapult The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow into a category alongside Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Mixing historical fiction with fantasy, superstition, magic, and poetic sentiment, Leganski creates an emotional and memorable story. A gifted storyteller, Leganski has many more stories yet to tell. She’s off to a boisterous beginning, as there is nothing reserved about Bonaventure Arrow. This novel is richer than New Orleans chicory coffee and sweeter than a plate of beignets.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the March Book Club Selection for She Reads. For reviews, discussions, and giveaways, be sure to visit their website.
I am also giving away a brand new copy of the book. Complete the brief form below. I will choose a winner using random.org. Giveaway ends Friday at 3 pm ET. Good luck!