Tuesday, April 13, 2010

REVIEW: Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Published 2009 by Tin House Books. Literary Fiction.

Asta in the Wings is one of the best books I've read in a while.

Jan Elizabeth Watson's novel is about a little girl, seven year old Asta Hewitt, who lives with her mother and her older brother Orion in a house in Maine. She's never been to school- she's barely even been outside the house, believing her mother's stories about plagues and holocaust. Then one day her mother doesn't come home from work, and she and Orion venture outside to find her. What follows blends Asta's wonder at the outside world with her fear (and ignorance) of it. It's not long until the adult world intervenes in Asta and Orion's fate, as the details of their life with their mother unfold alongside their new lives. The children eventually find the beginnings of a new life, with the hope that they won't have to leave the old one behind entirely.

To love Asta in the Wings you have to love Asta, and I did. Watson evokes affection for Asta that never lapses into pity, because the girl, with her intelligence, resilience and loyalty, carries an optimism that makes the reader believe in her and share her faith in herself and her future, if not exactly that of her family. She's not angry at her mother- she's too innocent for that, and Watson leaves that to the reader anyway. But even the reader's anger is held off because Watson keeps Asta's mother at a distance. Loretta Hewitt is a faded beauty obsessed with old movies; she keeps the children isolated and she says it's for their own good but we never really learn why. Since we don't really know whether she is driven by cruelty or delusion we don't know whether or not to pity her.

She writes the book in the first person, from the adult Asta's point of view but her more worldly voice rarely breaks in; instead we have to see the world through her child's eyes and what we see is a wonder. I read Asta in the Wings in a couple of days; I found it difficult to put down and was sad to see it end. I'd suggest it to literary fiction readers and all readers of coming-of-age stories; it's beautifully crafted and compelling, though not particularly light. It's also very optimistic and ends on a bittersweet note of hope. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. You will too!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.