Although it took awhile to get this book from the library, I admit I wasn’t in a hurry to read it. My reading isn’t a slave to prize lists, but it does help narrow down my TBR pile and of course, these books are nominated for a reason. Long-listed for the Giller Prize, Astra didn’t make the short list, but I’m so glad I read it, because now it’s one of my favourite books of the year.
Not only is the premise of the novel unusual, but the writing and each of the various characters leapt off the page.
Each chapter focuses on one person connected to the central character, Astra. They want to control her, become her, love her, escape her. Some of these people are only connected to her by the thinnest of threads, for a very short time, while others are central to her life’s story. There are ten chapters in total, telling her story through other people’s eyes.
Astra is born on a farming commune in B.C. to a man named Raymond. He is obsessed with living a nature-based life and steadfastly reluctant to take on the demands of fatherhood. The first chapter presents Raymond when he first learns of the pregnancy. He decides to stay on the farm but is unwilling to give anything of himself to Gloria, the woman carrying his child. His decision is based on his emotional attachment to the farm and his desire to fulfil his dream of a utopian way of life.
Next, is a young girl who glimpses another girl near her age outside the window of her manicured suburban home. The girl sees Astra as wild and free while she is shut up inside, careful not to disturb her mother’s bonding with her new baby. It is our first glimpse of Astra’s longing to have someone attach to her.
There is the concerned mother who was part of the commune in its early stages who tries to care for the young Astra, untended under Raymond’s selfish, inattentive eye. When the transient men who work at the farm pay too much attention to the budding, teenaged Astra, it is she who sees it for what it is and takes command to end it.
Then there are the various men who come into Astra’s life when she leaves the farm and begins her journey of self-discovery.
There were times when I found myself frustrated with Astra who seemed to have no will of her own. Instead, she lets herself be swept along as men shape her into what they want. She is a shell on the beach letting the waves beat against her in and out, in and out. She undertakes no direction, but simply morphs into whatever version their desires dictate.
Then there is Astra’s son who knows nothing of his own father and who later longs for connection to him. And finally, there is the woman who knows Raymond best, who takes Astra in when she has nowhere else to turn, and who becomes the mother/grandmother she always needed.
As she moves through life, Astra remains elusive and unknowable, a mystery to us and it seems, to herself. It isn’t until the end when we hear from Astra herself.
The book ends with an epilogue as she enters her early senior years. Here she reflects on the decisions she’s made, or lack of making them, but is at peace with herself and the life she’s fashioned. In the end, the final scene with Raymond is both heartbreaking and uplifting. I was sad to say goodbye to these extraordinary characters and especially wanted to know Astra as an older woman.
The novel explores the impact we have on those around us and how we can be a different person with everyone we connect with. Our weaknesses can either be exploited by people, or nurtured. They can bring out the best or the worst in those around us.
A fascinating account of how we influence those we know, those we love, and sometimes, those who’s path lightly crosses our own. What if you could see yourself as others see you? How different is that person from the one you see in the mirror? How do they become a different person because of who you are to them?
Stay safe my friends. I want to hope that we are nearing the end of this pandemic ordeal. I’ve had enough.
In the meantime, happy reading.