Astra by Cedar Bowers (Penguin $24.95)
BCBW 2021 Review by Portia Priegert

One big challenge for emerging writers is structure. You have a story—but how to tell it? Chronologically? A series of flashbacks? Or something more elaborate? In Astra, Cedar Bowers of Victoria develops an elegant solution for her debut novel —a series of loosely linked vignettes based on the perceptions of 10 people who pass through the life of the titular character.

They range from Raymond, the reluctant and incompetent father left to parent Astra after her mother dies in childbirth at Celestial Farm, a rural B.C. commune, through to Astra’s own child, Hugo, and his father, Dom, as well as some of the people Astra meets when she adapts, as best she can, to mainstream life away from Celestial.

This structure lets readers see Astra, a complex figure, through multiple lenses. Each vignette adds to our understanding, even as her life shifts and loops forward. The book is character-driven, something Bowers handles with aplomb. These people feel real and linger in your mind. Their struggles and their joys play out against common themes of the West Coast experience. Perhaps that’s not surprising: Bowers grew up and still lives part-time on Galiano Island, which has a long history as a counter-culture haven for writers.

The book’s first chapter, an introduction to the themes that will mark Astra’s life, needs a tighter edit, a problem that crops up periodically elsewhere, as does a tendency, at times, to tell a little too much, rather than letting the story reveal its insights more organically. But these are minor quibbles, and easier to overlook once the scene is set and the narrative momentum begins to build.

Astra, who mostly raises herself, has scars on her face from a cougar attack as a young child, a visible marker that echoes the invisible wounds she bears. She is tough and fiercely independent, a product of her environment. Talking to her childhood friend, Kimmy, she lectures about the perils of sugar, uses “complicated words” like consumerism, organic and oppressive, and borrows a favourite sweatshirt with seemingly little intention of returning it. “Where I live,” Astra tells Kimmy, “we share everything. It’s better that way.”

But as Astra heads into the world beyond Celestial, she seems naïve and vulnerable. She is prone to let others take care of her, whether the creepy manager at her first job, who lets her crash at his place, or the husband she eventually divorces. The repercussions of her unorthodox childhood become increasingly apparent. She is working through neglect and childhood trauma and seems to have some sort of attachment disorder but is a survivor. Later in life, caring for her father as his mind clouds with dementia, she wonders: “Is he even aware I’m here? Has he ever been?”

The story, ultimately, is a critique of the idealists and misfits who seek escape, redemption, a simpler life, whatever, as an alternative to mainstream consumerist culture and the ravages of capitalism. Yet, dream as they might, Bowers’s renegades mostly seem adrift and confused, as they replicate patriarchal systems that relegate women to cooking, cleaning and caregiving, leaving a trail of collateral damage in their wake. As Astra tells Dom, who spent his early years at Celestial but ends up as an emotionally remote financial manager in Toronto: “We come from the same sort of place … a place that isn’t real, that only exists as an idea. A place filled with irresponsible dreamers like them, and left-over kids like us.”

Circling back to structure, the book is remarkable in how it replicates the way we get to know people in real life. We watch them and talk to them, listen to others telling stories about them, perhaps study their photos or read something they have written, and, through all that, piece together an understanding. However fractured or contradictory, these shards are all we have, and our sense-making is informed by who we are as much by who these people might be or believe themselves to be. Indeed, readers who seek to understand Astra will be holding a mirror to their own most basic assumptions. 9780771012891

Victoria-based Portia Priegert is the editor for Galleries West and a former reporter for the Ottawa bureau of the Canadian Press.