What if you could see yourself as others see you? Astra is a beguiling debut novel that reveals the different faces of one woman, as seen through the eyes of ten people over a lifetime. Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and named a Best Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Free Press, and CBC Books.
Born and raised on a remote British Columbia commune, Astra Brine has long struggled to find her way in the world, her life becoming a study of the thin line between dependence and love, need and desire. Over the years, as her path intersects with others—sometimes briefly, but always intensely—she will encounter people who, by turns, want to rescue, control, become, and escape her, revealing difficult yet shining truths about who they are and what they yearn for.
There is the childhood playmate who comes to fear Astra’s unpredictable ways. The stranger who rescues her from homelessness, and then has to wrestle with his own demons. The mother who hires Astra as a live-in nanny even as her own marriage goes off the rails.
The man who takes a leap of faith and marries her.
Even as Astra herself remains the elusive yet compelling axis around which these narratives turn, her story reminds us of the profound impact that a woman can have on those around her, and the power struggles at play in all our relationships, no matter how intimate. A beautifully constructed and revelatory novel, Astra explores what we’re willing to give and receive from others, and how well we ever really know the people we love the most.
About the author
CEDAR BOWERS's fiction has been published in Joyland and Taddle Creek. Astra is her first novel. With her husband, novelist Michael Christie, and their two children, she divides her time between Galiano Island, where she grew up, and Victoria.
Excerpt: Astra: A Novel (by (author) Cedar Bowers)
Raymond Brine doesn't want to think about the coming baby. He doesn’t want to think about it, or about Gloria, or his role in it all. He doesn’t want to think about a creature so mewling and helpless. Not about its cord, its first cry, or its delicate newborn skin. He doesn’t want to think about shared blood, or familial lines, or humanity’s relentless compulsion to overpopulate this weary planet either. What he wants to do is work. To toil away on Celestial Farm’s lands with his comrades under this vast expanse of sky. To focus on soil, irrigation, crop yields, and building more housing for the commune—but this baby is coming as fast as a hurtling comet and already it’s made a mess of everything. Gloria arrived with the influx of spring workers in March,and after a long winter alone in the one-room fir cabin that he’d built his first winter at the Farm, Raymond found himself drawn to her quick laugh and broad shoulders, so he let her spend a few nights in his bed. When it soon became clear she was interested in more, he requested she move into the yurt with the others, carefully explaining that he didn’t believe in monogamous relationships, that he treasured his independence, that he never planned on being tied down. Gloria cited this as the reason she kept the pregnancy from him until June, and why she announced the news publicly during the morning breakfast meeting rather than talking to him one-on-one.
After the women finished their congratulations, running their fingers over her small, taut belly and kissing her full cheeks, Raymond pulled her aside to explain yet again that he wasn’t that kind of man. Not the kind who got married or provided or believed that A and B led to C. He wasn’t going to move to the city, cut his hair, get a job in a bank, or some other bullshit like that. He wasn’t going to buy a house or a stroller, because on and on it would go. He’d been called to Celestial for a reason, and nothing was going to distract him or slow him down. If Gloria was hoping he’d build a family with her, or that she’d get a declaration of love, she’d set her sights on the wrong man.
Despite Raymond’s unwavering stance, Gloria stuck around Celestial all summer long. Sometimes she searched him out by the river or in the gardens; or she bravely knocked on his cabin door to show him a sweater she’d crocheted for the baby, or to update him on the kicks she felt at night. When he encountered her like this, both vulnerable and stubborn, Raymond looked anywhere but into her wide, hazel eyes and pointed out that it would be better if she left and got her mother’s help. He had no business getting involved with her child.
“Our child,” Gloria reminded him firmly.
“If you say so,” he said, closing the door.
Summer turned to fall, yet even after most of the seasonal workers had returned to the city to luxuriate in the convenience of electric heat, Gloria showed no sign of going anywhere. So in October, long after her belly began protruding through her embroidered dresses, the hems riding up her thighs as the baby swelled, Raymond took further pains to avoid her. First, he removed his few belongings from his cabin and set up camp by the river. Then he stopped leading the morning meetings and hiking up the hill for the communal meals. Instead he foraged kale, carrots, fennel, and zucchini from the gardens, and he grew even skinnier.
In November, Doris, his childhood friend and the co-founder of Celestial, informed him that she and Gloria’s friend, Clodagh, had moved Gloria into his cabin where it was warmer, and that even though everyone else had gone for the winter, they were going to stay on until the baby arrived—they didn’t want the poor woman to be all alone. Though this bothered him, he was still confident that with time, Gloria would realize what a mistake she was making, and so he soldiered on. He spent his nights on the slate-rock riverbank, head resting on his rolled-up jacket, gazing up at the flickering light of the stars scattered across the sky. And when the weather grew too cold for that, he began sleeping in the small hayloft in the animal shed with the nanny goats, holding out for the morning he’d wake to discover that the woman and her pregnant belly had finally gone. Or, even better, he’d wake up to discover the whole fiasco had been a terrible dream.
Now it’s mid-December, and Raymond is at the top of a tall wooden ladder while the new kid, Wesley, clings firmly to the lower rails, steadying the contraption over the rocky soil. They are framing a twenty-foot-high, geodesic greenhouse that only needs five more windows before it’s completely winterized, and in the distance the sparrows and thrushes are singing, and the river’s winter-swollen waters are gurgling under the thin ice. Nature’s cacophony is normally the only soundtrack at the Farm, but today something else has been drifting down from the Encampment since dawn: the women are singing. With determination. Raymond can make out their wavering harmonies in the breeze.
Hooking his hammer in his back pocket, he begins his descent, when from below Wesley lets out a holler and the ladder careens to the left. Raymond’s tread-bare gumboots lose their footing, and the rails start sliding through his gloved hands. Thankfully, after falling only a few feet, he manages to grab ahold of the ladder again and maneuver his way to the ground in one piece.
Shaken, he rubs his jaw through his long, tangled beard as the boy watches him closely.
“I’m real sorry about that, it’s just those women up there are driving me crazy,” Wesley stammers, his face red and worried- looking, like he expects a beating.
“No problem. No one died.”
Wesley points to the hill. “Can’t you hear them? What do you think that’s all about? They’re going on and on, singing the same song.”
Raymond shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you,” he says, though he’s pretty sure he knows the reason behind it.
"A nuanced portrait of a complex character and the many ways in which she touches people’s lives. . . . Astra is a beautifully written book that challenges us to explore the idea of self and how we can appear to be so many different things to so many people. As her husband, Nick, notes, 'If I mentioned everything outstanding about Astra, we’d be here for hours.'” —Toronto Star
"Bowers is very good at tracking atmospheric shifts in domestic arrangements, things usually unspoken or misplaced that can only bloom in the wake of emotional risk." —Quill & Quire
"Cedar Bowers's debut took my breath away. In Astra, Bowers dares to contend with the many selves we all contain—those we conceal, those we perform, those we try to outrun in our search for love, belonging, and home. She holds the human heart like a diamond to the light, exposing its every fault, its every dream, its every pain that both damns and anoints. Bowers writes with the unsentimental clarity and aching wisdom of a young Alice Munro. A fiercely beautiful novel. I could not put it down." —Claudia Dey, author of Heartbreaker and Stunt
"Every once in a while, that book comes along—the one that holds you spellbound with its eloquent prose and fascinating characters, the one you can't wait to get back to each night. Astra is that book. This is storytelling at its best and writing at its finest." —Cea Sunrise Person, author of North of Normal and Nearly Normal
"Cedar Bowers has assembled, through glimpses and ellipses, a powerful, complex portrait of a fascinating woman and the lives that orbit and collide with hers. Astra is an engrossing, unique book, and a thoughtful exploration of how hard it is to truly know someone." —Rebecca Rosenblum, author of So Much Love
"Astra is a gift. A story possessing boundless empathy for human eccentricities and delivered with a stylistic and emotional precision that goes straight to the reader's heart." —Carleigh Baker, author of Bad Endings