Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Of Things Gone Astray is Janina Matthewson’s debut novel, and it is charming and heartfelt magical realism. Using short chapters that cycle through different character perspectives, Matthewson tells the story of several people who have lost something of value to them, ranging from piano keys or the front of a house to a girlfriend or a father. As these characters struggle with their losses, a young boy named Jake begins to find the things that are lost, developing a magical sense for where the items came from and their meaning to the owner.
Of Things Gone Astray reminds me a bit of the film Love Actually and, in case you hate that movie, let me just assure you I mean the comparison in the most innocuous way possible. The story is told through vignettes. The characters all live in London. Despite not all being acquainted, their lives are intertwined in subtle ways. There are opening and closing scenes at the Heathrow airport. But the most important similarity is the focus on love and human relationships. In Matthewson’s book, though, the vehicle for redemption is the loss of a beloved item.
Invariably, the lost item is a metaphor for a bigger truth about the self. For instance, Robert, who has lost his job (literally, he cannot find his London office anymore), discovers that he hated his job. This discovery brings no relief, as he does not know what he should do instead. But slowly, in his confusion and self-doubt, he begins woodworking and finds that he loves making things with his hands.
My favorite character, Mrs. Featherby, is a former spy who has become a lonely old woman baking tea cakes for herself in the privacy of her home — until the front of her house goes missing. With her house and herself on display to the world, she strikes up a friendship with Mara, a little girl next door (and the daughter of Robert). Opening up to another person reminds her that she misses being useful and being involved in the world.
Of Things Gone Astray involves quite a few unexplained magical events, but one of the hallmarks of magical realism is that the characters accept these events as relatively normal. The losses and changes have a personal significance, causing their characters grief and pain, but not really astonishment. For instance, when Cassie, a girl abandoned by her lover in an airport, slowly starts turning into a tree, there is some mild curiosity by an arborist, but not the worldwide furor that would occur if someone actually turned into a tree. Instead, she causes mild annoyance, counterbalanced by a general feeling of goodwill.
There is a tree in Terminal Two of Heathrow Airport … There is grass spreading out from the tree; it almost reaches the far corners of the room, and in some places there are flowers. Benches and chairs and tables that used to be moveable have grown into the floor. There are complaints and mutterings about the difficulty of reading the arrivals announcements, about the challenge of pulling a suitcase along in a grassy area, but really people tend to smile at the sight of a tree in such an unusual place.
Although I found Cassie’s transformation fascinating and lovely in Matthewson’s prose, I did not like her or relate to her character. There were a few characters whose stories I found a little boring or long-winded. But I loved watching Jake collect lost items and catalog them. I could have read a book entirely focused on that process.
Sounds like a good library pick up. Thanks!