Astra by Cedar Bowers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A truly unforgettable story. I couldn’t put this engrossing, character-driven novel down.
Astra, as seen through ten different characters’ perspectives, is a complex “forever wild child.” She practically raised herself and was allowed to roam freely on the extensive grounds of the Celestial Commune in B.C.’s back country. This novel had so much to say about the sham notions of “freedom” of commune life at Celestial.
Invariably, the heavy work was left to the female members, on top of the child rearing. The price of the freedom provided by the Celestial commune often came at a great cost: Astra’s mother Gloria died due to inadequate medical care, Astra had little or no education or social skills, and Doris (one of the narrators) had to supplement the farm’s income from her own resources because the inhabitants were often transient, unreliable or untrained for farm work.
Each chapter is narrated by a person who closely impacts Astra at each stage of her life. We learn about Astra over the years through each successive narrator, some of whom are, of course, self-serving and unreliable witnesses. We, the readers, must build our own profile of Astra, based on what others think of her. We must do the job of separating the wheat from the chaff.
Raymond: is Astra’s emotionally distant, irresponsible father who has retreated from life, taking shelter and solace in his nihilism. His hands-off parenting style almost gets Astra killed by a cougar. She will bear those scars, and many others, for the rest of her life.
Kimmy was Astra’s first childhood playmate. Kimmy was also in need of a friend, and at first she enjoyed Astra’s inventive games, but she soon realized that Astra was too wild and socially backwards to be trusted with her and her baby sister’s lives.
Clodagh would tell Astra that their lives were destined to follow the same path – flitting from one bad or abusive relationship to the other. She tried to be a surrogate mother to Astra, but Astra had outgrown the need for a mother by the time Clodagh returned to the derelict commune years later.
Brendan, Nick (and Chris) were indicative of the many men and women who fell under Astra’s enticing spell. (Astra is bisexual.) They would see Astra as someone who needed to be saved because of her “unfortunate” beginnings. Some of them would abuse her or wanted something from her that she had never learned to receive, much less give. It was only with the birth of her son, Hugo, that Astra was able to fully love another human being, without reservation.
Sativa, Clodagh’s daughter, is perhaps the one person who truly saw Astra as she really was. Yes, Astra could manipulate others into feeling sorry for her and into helping her when she was in a tough spot, but Astra was also remarkably resilient and self-sufficient. Brendon believed he was rescuing Astra from the dangers of sleeping at the bus station, and Chris gave her a place to live after Hugo was born, but Astra was usually able to move on and take care of herself when she was no longer welcome or able to endure her current circumstances.
Lauren was the most neurotic of the narrators. What a strange family dynamic! What a riveting chapter – no spoilers here!
Dom and Hugo – the two most important relationships in her life – also weigh in on the Astra that they knew and loved.
For a while, you don’t know who to believe. Fortunately (don’t worry, no spoilers here) there is an Epilogue, and the truth about Astra finally comes out. My take is that what you see is what you get with Astra, although other NG reviewers would disagree. There was never any pretense from her. I suspect that many of the narrators didn’t know how to deal with such forthright behaviour, uncluttered with the polite niceties and manners that we were all taught as children.
I loved this author’s candid, flowing writing style. I also enjoyed wrestling with and pondering why the author never capitalized the letter “y” in the word “you” when it was used in the beginning of a sentence. Ultimately, I decided that the author (or Astra) was perpetually debating the “why” in “y”. The “Eternal Why.” Do we give too much importance to what others think of us, hence the author’s refusal to assign a capital letter to someone else’s pronoun? Perhaps Raymond was right after all, and we humans don’t matter at all? Or perhaps Astra came closer to the truth when she states: “We’re not just matter. We’re not f**king stars in the cosmos. We’re one human life stacked on top of the traumas and the tragedies of another.”
I have to admit that, like so many others in this story, I fell under her spell and came to love and admire Astra: she was such a strong, independent woman! The people who ultimately became her family circle were not always related to Astra by blood. Her open, candid nature was an irresistible magnet: she would never be short of friends and companions.
I loved the deeply satisfying ending of this story: it came full circle and left me feeling hopeful for Astra. This was one of the most intelligent, fascinating, yet simply written stories about one woman’s complicated path in this complex world! The book cover and blurb do not do this novel justice: it is a rare gem. Highly, highly recommended.
My thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
The following comment would could evolve into an interesting book club discussion. If anyone wants to discuss this book as a group, let me know and we could start a Discussion Group on GR.
P.S. (Slight spoiler alert:) I think that the Epilogue served a dual purpose: yes, it tied up a lot of loose ends, but it also helps the reader “refocus the lens” through which we saw Astra over the years: the messy, self-absorbed teenager with no real life skills of the early chapters; the young woman who wanted to please everyone; the older mother who loved her son and tried to give him the space he needed – at a great emotional cost to herself. For this reason, I don’t think Astra was a totally selfish person: remember that she grew up with no restrictions whatsoever. Learning to conform and fit in with society must have been difficult for her, especially in a huge city like Calgary.
Each of the narrators had their own agendas regarding what they wanted/needed from Astra. If The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford taught me anything, it was to reserve my judgment until the very end, because your narrator could well be a deluded, narrow minded, unreliable fool.
When she first arrived in Calgary, Astra was this uncouth girl who didn’t have the sense to be afraid of sleeping at a bus station. Keep in mind also that Astra had a lonely childhood and therefore was always trying to please people. Nick’s chapter was very revealing in more ways than one. If Astra truly was such a terrible person, why did so many people like her and try to help her? This book should probably be read twice!
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