On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people all lose something dear to them, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.
Meanwhile, Jake, a young boy whose father brings him to London following his mother’s sudden death in an earthquake, finds himself strangely attracted to other people’s lost things. But little does he realise that his most valuable possession, his relationship with his dad, is slipping away from him.
This delightful book has at its central premise a question: What would you do if you lost that which was most important to you? Of Things Gone Astray takes the separate, but eventually interwoven, lives of six otherwise normal people and explores what happens as each experiences a loss.
Each loss is different, because each loss is also the loss of what helped define the character's relationship with the world and how they regarded themselves. Thus the loss of Mrs Featherby's front wall is also the loss of the wall she puts up to the rest of the world. Suddenly she is living behind a semi-opaque curtain of polythene and her neighbors, who previously had not interacted with her, start to do so.The pianist Marcus loses not only the piano keys, but with them his confidence, leaving him unable to make decisions. Robert's place of work (and therefore his job) disappears and although he disliked his work he is at a loss without the role his job had imposed on him. Jake and his father lose each other, not in a literal sense but in a magic-realist way - they stop being able to see each other.
Of Things Gone Astray could have been one of those feel-good magic-realist novels that I have reviewed several times over the years I have been writing this blog, but it is not. To be sure, some of the storylines come out for the good and the individual gains new strength from their loss - as happens in the story of Delia, a young woman who loses her sense of direction - but that is not always the case. Another young woman waits in vain for her lover to arrive and cannot move from the arrivals lounge, because a) she cannot give up on the hope that her lover will come, and b) she is slowly turning into a tree. Some people can cope and others can't, the book says honestly.
This novel is a good example of how magic realism can be used to cast a light (albeit a sideways one) on the human condition. It is also a good read. Matthewson's touch is light and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Her narrative voice has a dry observational humor. For example the book opens with the lines:Mrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight.
They had been dreams of when she was younger and more energetic, dreams of a time when she had full use of her knees.
After I read that, I knew I was going to enjoy this book.
This is Janina Matthewson's first published novel. I will look out for her second.
I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.