Of Things Gone Astray
By Janina Matthewson
The Friday Project/HarperCollins, 2016
288 pages, $14.99
A few years ago, I stumbled upon the novel Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson, an actress, playwright, and screenwriter from New Zealand who has been living in London for the past several years. The whimsical cover art of a young woman turning into a tree and the cryptic synopsis about a group of people waking up one day to find that something crucial in their lives has gone missing made for an irresistible combination.
It turns out my instincts were sound; Of Things Gone Astray is a captivating, thought-provoking, and bittersweet novel that deserves a wide readership.
The narrative rotates among a cast of characters, each of whom has lost something seemingly incapable of being lost.
Elderly Mrs. Featherby wakes up to find the front wall of her house gone; there are no crumbled bricks and building materials on the ground, just a missing wall. Cassie, a young woman in love for the first time, waits at Heathrow Airport for her girlfriend Floss to arrive home from a trip to Brazil, but she never arrives. Cassie is so stunned that she refuses to leave the Arrivals terminal until Floss appears. Eventually, she puts down roots into the terminal floor and begins to turn into a tree.
Delia, detoured in the middle of her master’s degree in Fine Arts to care for her infirm mother, has suddenly lost her sense of direction; she can’t even negotiate her own neighborhood without becoming hopelessly lost. Robert, a young husband and father, arrives at his office only to find that the building is gone, and appears never to have been there in the first place.
Marcus, a renowned pianist, sits down at the piano in his music room and finds that the keys are missing. Jake has moved from New Zealand to London to live with his father Anthony following the accidental death of his mother. Their relationship is tentative at best, as neither seems to know what to make of the other, and Jake also struggles to fit in at school.
Each character has suffered a real loss with which they are not coping effectively. They are still in one of the early stages of the grieving process, usually the denial stage, and the manifestation of their loss forces them to take more drastic action or rely on others to help them.
The characters’ responses to their utterly perplexing situations are plausible under the circumstances, and the storyline generates a great deal of sympathy and interest in seeing what will happen next. We learn their stories as the multiple narratives open up, and each one is a compelling scenario.
As the novel progresses, some of the characters encounter each other and inadvertently aid the other person by providing something that person needs, even if it is just a new insight into their situation. The clever plotting and sympathetic characters make what could have been an awkward or implausible story into a touching and involving novel.
Matthewson deserves particular kudos for her sparkling dialogue, which does a cracking job of capturing the modern English sensibility. At times, Of Things Gone Astray is laugh-out-loud funny, especially in the scenes featuring Robert and his wife Mara.
Of Things Gone Astray is a complex web of a novel that reads much faster than its subject matter or title would suggest. While it is superficially whimsical, beneath the surface lies a novel with serious concerns on its mind.