ASTA IN THE WINGS, by Jan Elizabeth , Tinhouse Books, New York, 2009, paperback, 314 pages, $14.
“All the world’s a stage.” In her debut novel, “Asta in the Wings,” author Jan Elizabeth Watson, who lives in Portland, threads that idea through the story of 7-year-old Asta and 9-year-old Orion Hewitt and their mother, Loretta. She used the idea to illuminate the story of two neglected children growing up in a world created by their mother, who, it appears, suffers from a mental illness.
Asta, the narrator of the story, has never seen the outside world. Each day, when Loretta goes to work, she locks her children inside, leaving them to watch television, read from antique books and fend for themselves. They cannot see outside because the windows are covered with tarred paper. They have no contact with anyone other than their mother.
Loretta’s neglect of her children is rooted in her delusion that the world outside is diseased and that contact with it will harm her son and daughter.
That Loretta loves her children cannot be doubted — but she loves them in her own unusual and odd way. She works to have money to keep a roof over their heads and to buy such food as she is able to provide. She spends all of her free time with them and she protects them fiercely from danger as she perceives it. It doesn’t occur to her, however, that her children are malnourished to such a degree that Orion has grown physically weak, or that locking them inside might be construed by others as abusive.
Then fate intervenes. Loretta fails to come home from work one night. This event sets off a series of other events, and the children find their way outside the house to search for their mother.
Asta is the heroine of the story and it unfolds as a kind a quest. The children meet well-intentioned (for the most part) adults who recognize the children’s plight and see to it they are cared for. But it is up to the children to learn to make sense of their new reality in a world strange to them.
The story is infused with an odd sense of dread that keeps the reader off-balance and fearing that something really bad will happen to these engaging children. It makes one want to keep turning pages.