Asta in the Wings

A 7-year-old narrator with an unforgettable voice carries this debut novel.

Asta in the Wings By Jan Elizabeth Watson Tin House Books 320 pp., $14

Seven-year-old Asta Hewitt lives locked inside her boarded-up house with her older brother and her mother – living on canned goods as one of the few survivors of a plague that their mother tells them has decimated the population.

But, as their mother heads out the door to work in the cherry-red boots Asta loves, it becomes clear that Asta in the Wings is not science fiction. It’s Maine during the 1970s, and the apocalypse the Hewitts are facing is far more personal in nature.

Instead of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Jan Elizabeth Watson’s debut novel is closer to Matthew Kneale’s darkly comic “When We Were Romans.” In both novels, a reader listens with growing disquiet as a child narrator describes the actions their mothers take to protect them, when in fact, their parent’s delusions represent the greatest danger.

The world inside the Hewitts’ home is a mix of strict rules, old movies, TV game shows, and the book of Revelation. Asta doesn’t remember life outside, but her adored brother Orion tells her stories about going to school and having a birthday party.

During the day, the children teach themselves, eat bedside picnics of Vienna sausages and creamed corn, and watch TV. Orion’s favorites are the community announcements: “There was nothing he liked better than hearing about an upcoming baked bean supper at the Methodist church even though he had no experience with such events.” (They believe the TV shows are leftover fragments of society and that the actors are all dead.)

At night, their mother will read Shakespeare or reenact scenes from old movies with them, while laying on Styrofoam “ice floes” and urging them to “EMOTE!”

The children aren’t allowed much food, since it weighs the body down. Apparently, adults aren’t subject to the same rules.

“Orion and I always guessed, with much anticipation, what Mother would bring home to eat with her after-dinner tea. She kept an opened package of something or other in her pocketbook most days, iced or sugar-spinkled cookies, shortbread squares. We weren’t allowed to have so much as a bite, since sugar reduced children’s natural immunities, but we did think it a magnificent moment whenever Mother revealed what she had. We’d coax her to hold the cookies out so we could see them, and sometimes she even permitted us to sniff them.”

One day, their mother doesn’t come home from work. After the kids eat the last three cans of food in the house, they open the basement door to look for her, and Asta comes into contact with the outside world for the first time.

For her, the experience is every bit as foreign as Lucy stepping into Narnia, and without any fauns or talking animals to cheer up the place. There also are no six-winged beasts full of eyes or piles of disease-riddled bodies, as their mother described.

Instead, Orion and Asta find a convenience store and children waiting for a school bus. Watson details both of these with a skilled anthropologist’s eye, as Orion stuffs his malnourished body with a plate of crackers put out as samples, and Asta tears into her first cupcake.

When the curmudgeonly store clerk tells her “You’ll want to pay for that,” Asta coolly asks, “Will I? Why?”

Asta, at first, is unwilling to believe that her mother lied to her about everything. Separated from her beloved brother and sent to live with an indifferent aunt and her two brutish teenage sons, Asta has to learn to navigate in a completely foreign society without being swallowed by it.

“You can conduct yourself as if you are watching a movie – with darkness closing in on all sides,” her mother tells her the night before she doesn’t come home, “or choice number two, you can conduct yourself as if you are acting in a movie, with your inner light guiding you all the way.”

Watson hasn’t set herself an easy task for her debut. The success of the novel rests entirely on her main character’s sparrow-sized shoulders. Fortunately, Asta has reserves of intelligence and resourcefulness to spare, and her voice is unforgettable.

As she recounts her first months outside the Bond Brook house, the novel ratchets up an almost uncomfortable level of suspense. Nor does Watson indulge in stock characters or pat answers, as she paints a portrait of a girl who learns early that she cannot rely on the adults surrounding her.

Orion and Asta continue to long for their mother, even while their bodies thrive on such “luxuries” as bread, milk, and jam. Their family of three is vital to all of their identities, and the children’s efforts to hold on to that connection gives “Asta in the Wings” a poignant tension.

“At times Mother’s monologues were over my head,” Asta tells readers early on, “but they could sustain my interest if the words were lovely enough: formidable, for one, was about the prettiest I had ever heard.” Asta’s taste is impeccable: Her favorite word suits her perfectly.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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