Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
"I feared a day when mother might forget to lock us in properly," says seven-year-old Asta, narrator of Jan Elizabeth Watson's compact and captivating novel Asta in the Wings. It's the morning of "the last day, the day before everything changed," and her mother, Loretta, has just left for work, locking her children -- Asta and nine-year-old Orion -- into the house to protect them "from the inscrutable outside world."
Asta and Orion, it seems, are allegedly sick children in need of protection from the world of germs. They're homeschooled, as Asta will later explain, "on account of the plague," and are convinced that the streets outside are lined with piles of plague-ridden corpses. This preoccupation with illness comes directly from Loretta, who indoctrinates her children to believe that "regular exposure" to bathwater is unhealthy and that food "weigh[s] the body down, making it less resistant to infection." The threat of germs is so pervasive that the windows are covered over with tar paper, and Loretta cuts Asta's hair into a scraggly pixie style because "hair is the worst hive of germ activity."
Yet, while it's clear to the reader that Loretta is delusional, Asta and Orion don't seem to be fully healthy children. Loretta finds a lump near Asta's hip, and though its presence is dubious, Asta fixates on it throughout the novel. And when Orion wakes up with blue, swollen legs, unable to walk, it's alarming, but partly questionable, too. Thus, Watson sets up a dynamic wherein a reader – this reader, at least – can't tell at first what the story is about: Sick children with an eccentric mother? An eccentric mother making her children sick? I won't spoil the read for you, but suffice it to say that this compelling ambiguity touched off a hypochondria-induced fascination that I couldn't help but indulge. I gladly took Watson's bait and followed her into the Hewitt family's particular and isolated world.
The Hewitts don't stay isolated for long, however; circumstances soon push Asta and Orion out into the larger world. Here, they encounter strange new things -- like a convenience store (with its confusing "open" sign), a school bus, hot chocolate -- and their wonder at these ordinary sights is not only a testament to their isolation, but also a testament to Watson's ability to capture the familiar with fresh eyes. The Hewitts are also forced to confront society, and while Loretta struggles to justify her childrearing to an unsympathetic cadre of hospital and social workers, Asta and Orion must reconcile their home life with the outside world. It's a heartbreaking examination of otherness and normality.
Despite the strangeness of their lifestyle and Loretta's questionable parenting skills, the Hewitts are a fascinating, likeable, and resilient bunch. Their home life is rich with imagination and theatrics, and their deep affection for each other is a source of constancy and relative normalcy. The outside world, though abundantly populated, is incredibly isolating for all three Hewitts. Asta and Orion, especially, have to learn the hard fact that loneliness can be most acute when you're surrounded by society.
Much to her credit, Watson doesn't allow the reader to make an easy, black-and-white judgment that society is "good" and isolation is "bad." This nuance is accomplished partly by the use of Asta as narrator. Though we know that she is an adult at the time of the telling, the story is beautifully devoid of grown-up editorializing. It is neither accusatory nor confessional. She doesn't blame her mother for anything; she doesn't position herself as a victim. What she does is give an expressive, authentic rendering of childhood through a child's eyes, at a time when her mother and brother are, literally, her entire world.
Books mentioned in this post