Review: Astra / Author: Naomi Foyle / Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books / Release Date: Out Now
Set after a catastrophic event involving the world’s current consumption of fossil fuels and oil, Astra is an environmentalist’s dream come true. Is-Land is a country created after this defining event that is home to those who call themselves Gaians. These people worship Gaia (Earth) and make it their life's mission to protect her from those who would harm her. They practise veganism, free love on a wide scale, children have a minimum of three parents (two biological and up to two ‘shelter’) and they are all nudists. When we meet Astra, she is a seven-year-old girl who is ready to have her security shot so that she can do her national service and defend her Gaian homeland from ‘Non-Lander infiltrators’. She strives to become a famous scientist one day, just like her shelter-parents. But all of this is turned upside down when one of her shelter-mothers, Dr Hokma Blesser, tells her if she wants to become an exceptional scientist she should not have her shot. Her desire to achieve this pushes her to agree to Hokma’s plan. As Astra grows up she becomes entangled in a web of collusions and adult relationships before having to finally take her fate into her own hands and learn to survive in a world that is not as black and white as she first thought.
Set during three turning points in Astra’s life (aged seven, 12 and 17), the novel quickly becomes a surprisingly gripping piece; what first appears as a novel based on environmentalist philosophy takes a sharp turn into politics. Themes of colonialism, anti-immigration, and indoctrination become apparent and as Is-Land’s history is gradually revealed the book becomes a more compelling read. One of the more shocking notions within the novel is its exploration of sex and children’s sexual development. Gaian children as young as seven are encouraged to ‘Gaia play’ or masturbate with themselves, and, as the community is nudist, are exposed to genitalia constantly from a very young age. When they reach puberty they are expected to develop sexual relationships with other children of their age group and become ‘Gaia play partners’. Penetration is forbidden until the age of fifteen, but the book is nevertheless very bold in its approach to this issue.
Shocking though it might be in some respects, Astra certainly provides food for thought. The attitude the Gaian people have towards each other is refreshing; they are, on the whole, a loving and peaceful community. They accept one another for who they are, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality, which is something in today’s society that is drastically lacking. Their attitude to early sexual development is still concerning, but their approach to sexual education is clear and informative. With regards to the book itself, the first couple of chapters are difficult to understand due to the amount of new vocabulary introduced (names of people, places, etc), but once you get past this, the story quickly becomes engrossing. The ending is abrupt, but it makes you crave the second instalment of the Gaia Chronicles. Astra will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I am looking forwards to the next book with curiosity and excitement.