Cedar Bowers' debut novel explores the question of whether we can ever really know others—or ourselves.
WHAT ARE THE STARS TO US? Objects of study to some, objects of admiration to others. For people everywhere they are a place to project our own visions, whether it’s queens from Greek mythology, items like the Big Dipper, or animals like Ochek the fisher, tasked, according to Cree tradition, with bringing summer back to the northern hemisphere. Of course, the stars are also just themselves, separate, mysterious, not wholly knowable to those who look from the outside.
So it is with the title character of Cedar Bowers’ debut novel Astra (McLelland & Stewart).
Writer Cedar Bowers
Astra follows one woman’s life from the time she’s conceived and born on a fictional BC commune to when she meets her own grandchild for the first time, but each chapter presents the point of view of a different person in her life. It is a novel told at once in a line and in loops. Several chapters offer the perspectives of people who have been part of Astra’s story from beginning to end—like her father and one of the women from the commune who cares for her almost like the mother Astra never knew. Others are tangential: a child living in a house across the field, who Astra secretly climbs through the window to play with; a young man who hires her at a Calgary mall; a man she is married to for a time.
With these shifting voices, each chapter is and isn’t about Astra, and so the story we form of her is fractured and filtered. Imagine the jagged and jumbled story that would be assembled by a random collection of people who knew you, some for a long time, some only briefly. Bowers reinforces this idea through Astra’s face, scarred from an incident on the commune when she was a child. A lawyer who hires Astra to help with her son notes: “The line splits her face asymmetrically, like in a Picasso, making it hard to get a complete picture of who she is.”
Part of what makes the book so compelling is the puzzle of trying to come to a sense of her and realizing that imperfect and incomplete knowledge is the best we get of all the characters in this book—and, ultimately, of even the people in our own lives. As one character observes while trying to understand the impact of Astra’s unconventional past: “We only have part of the story.” That’s all any of us ever have.
And so we bring in our own judgment. Is Raymond’s statement “I’m not capable of being anyone’s father” honesty or avoidance? Is his detached parenting of Astra a respectful way to confer freedom? Or is it a lack of responsibility? When adult Astra starts seeing a therapist and stops talking as much to her husband, is that setting boundaries? Or withdrawing? When Astra’s son becomes a father himself and brings his baby to meet Astra for the first time, he thinks “She wasn’t being herself, and he couldn’t make sense of it.” Or perhaps she was just not being the self he thinks he knows and so expects.
In almost every chapter, people change as circumstances change, sometimes by design, sometimes in reactive response to chance events. Bowers offers no sense of judgment, and readers must decide for themselves: does this mean they are strong or weak? Are they being authentic or trying on a kind of pretence? There’s no one way to feel or respond, and the reader becomes implicated as we start to project our own sense of what characters “should” think or do or be. But as the book’s structure constantly underlines, how do we truly know anyone?
Bowers’ past may have informed her interest in playing with what people think they know about one another. Married to novelist Michael Christie and mother to kids aged 12 and 8, Bowers was born and raised in the small community of Galiano Island, which she left at 17. Like Astra, she moved to Calgary to work at a mall. “I wanted something else,” she tells me. “I wanted to be able to become something different. There are themes in Astra similar to this. Who people thought I was wasn’t necessarily who I wanted to be. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, that’s for sure. One thing I worked very hard on as I went along was to make sure that every single person was both very right and very wrong about Astra.”
Meeting Bowers was itself a lesson in recognizing and ditching one’s projections. Her author photos are unsmiling, and on the ferry to our meeting, I worried about whether she’d be as closed as I thought she appeared and if I’d get her to open up. Instead, she bounded out of her car with a wide grin and a ready laugh, and our easy chat over coffee and croissants again made me realize what a reflex it is to make up stories about people based on the littlest bits of information.
Bowers’ book also invites us to wonder, after we’ve turned the last page, about how we present to others. I found myself reflecting on whether, like many of her characters, I adjust my façades or honesty for this person versus that other person. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps it is a form of self-exploration and discovery. One might start to feel like there is, regretfully, never any truly honest intimacy between people. Or, as has been famously said, maybe we are simply large and contain multitudes. Many times during our talk, about many subjects, Bowers was prone to say: “Both are true.”
The idea of relationships marked by change, chance, and distance can seem alienating. For example, when the father of Astra’s child meets his teenage son for the first time, he wonders: “How do you get to know someone you should already know better than anyone in the world?” But it can also be oddly comforting, as it strips off the expectations. In the epilogue—finally told in Astra’s own voice—a reluctant Astra takes responsibility for her aging and cognitively impaired father. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says, “Don’t worry….You’re a stranger to me too.”
Letting go of the need for certainty—“Does anyone get it right?”—also opens the door to having beginnings in the middle or even at the end of one’s story. Some of the book’s most resonant moments are small seeds of growth planted in unassuming lines like “Come on, Dad. Let’s keep going” and “Let’s start again….”
A belief in becoming and starting anew is, in fact, part of how this book came to be at all. Bowers and her husband moved back to Galiano when she was 32, when their life was crazy with jobs and kids and building a cabin on her parents’ property (Bowers and her family now divide their time between Galiano and Victoria). As she tells it, “I thought: ‘maybe what I need to do is try to write’.” She had long wanted to do storytelling of some kind but was hesitant and somewhat insecure, as she hadn’t studied for it or gone to university. “I had no reason to believe I could do it,” she says, “but I realized that I would like to try.”
In her youth, Bowers had a difficult relationship with education, and she had projected a certain story onto herself that for a long time kept her from trying. “I had held myself back,” she explains. “Nobody had ever said ‘You should never write a book.’ I had been taking all these little pieces of information all through my life, and I had decided that was the case for me. I had to decide that wasn’t true anymore. That was a wonderful thing. So I hope there’s no authentic self,” she laughs. “One of the small ways I’m like Astra is she keeps reinventing herself: ‘That didn’t work. What can I try next?’ I did that all my life until I tried this thing. I think it fits a bit better.” While it took nine years from her starting the book to having it published, writing certainly does seem to fit Bowers well, with Astra longlisted for the 2021 Giller Prize.
As we circle Astra through the eyes and stories of ten people in their varying orbits of her, Bowers explores how here on the human plane, the projections we overlay on one another are complicated by factors like honesty and deceit, self-knowledge and self-deception, fear and desire. Whatever any of those really mean at any given time. For what Astra the character and Astra the book both show us is that what we think we know about others or even ourselves is in constant flux as we spin through the space—filled with wonder and junk—of our often ordinary but radiant lives.
You can read Cedar Bowers’ short fiction in Joyland (https://joylandmagazine.com/fiction/getting-out/), Taddle Creek (https://www.taddlecreekmag.com/the-same-cabin) and in the summer 2021 issue of The Malahat Review.
Having quit her job as an editor at the Legislative Assembly, writer Amy Reiswig is enjoying productive self-reinvention finally living full-time on Mayne Island.