Astra by Cedar Bowers
Canadian writers Cedar Bowers and Michael Christie may be the latest literary power couple. Christie’s book “Greenwood” — which was reviewed last week in the Cascadia Daily News — is this year’s Whatcom READS selection; Christie will be speaking in Whatcom County March 3–5.
Christie’s wife Bowers is no slouch either. Her debut novel “Astra” was long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize and holds its own as a vivid, insightful character study of a spellbinding, complicated woman searching for love and belonging. “Astra” is described as a “vivid, insightful character study of a spellbinding, complicated woman searching for love and belonging.”
Each chapter of Astra’s story is told from the point of view of one of 10 different people, starting with her father Raymond. Cofounder of Celestial Farms, a commune in British Columbia, Raymond is deeply committed to a life unfettered by family or rules. When Astra Winter Sorrow Brine comes into the world and her mother Gloria dies soon thereafter, Raymond is at a loss. His disinterest and neglect have a profound effect on Astra, leaving lasting scars.
We next meet Astra through the eyes of Kimmy, a lonely 7-year-old whose troubled mother parks her in Quiet Time for hours. Kimmy spies Astra emerging from the woods behind Kimmy’s house and is instantly captivated when Astra shimmies over the windowsill and into Kimmy’s room. Astra seems fearless, and feral, immediately claiming Kimmy’s sparkly kitten sweatshirt as her own. Kimmy is thrilled to have a friend — then quickly terrified by what Astra might do.
By the time Gloria’s friend Clodagh returns to Celestial, Astra is 15 years old, all legs, with waist-length black hair and piercing eyes. She’s oblivious to the catcalls and lewd remarks from the local ne’er-do-wells and accustomed to fending for herself. We see her through Clodagh’s guilty conscience: guilty for having abandoned the girl even after a terrible incident put Astra in grave danger.
Astra’s unusual upbringing makes her self-reliant, lonely and precocious. She doesn’t follow social norms, as shown in a chapter by Brendon, the infatuated manager of Street Stylz who offers Astra her first paying job and a free place to stay at his apartment. In another chapter, Sativa glimpses Astra’s life as a new mother, playacting the role of middle-class housewife with a man who’s not the baby’s father. Astra seems to try on new personalities, searching for her identity and for someone to love her. With Raymond’s old friend Doris, Astra finds some stability, but even Doris cannot abide by Astra for long.
One by one, these people are drawn to Astra’s backstory and her quirky take on the world, but ultimately struggle to connect.
Throughout the book, characters take turns tossing a tiny metal 10-sided die, choosing to believe the message that each roll seems to share. Bowers seems to be painting a metaphor about fate, and the importance of ignoring the fate you’re handed in order to truly live.
For another book featuring an enigmatic Canadian heroine, try “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel. “Astra” also draws comparisons to “The Girls” by Emma Cline. The novel “Astra,” like its namesake, is complex, slightly sad, and will stay etched in your mind for some time.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide selection of online content at wcls.org/info. Your public libraries are an essential “green” resource — reduce, reuse, read!
(Originally published by Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, February 11, 2022.)