What a delightful book. It is spare and quirky and dryly humorous. Though it includes numerous fantastical occurrences, I wouldn't quite call it magic realism; more like metaphorical absurdity. Surreal things happen, and the characters grapple with them just like anything else that happens, because sometimes life feels absurd.
Of Things Gone Astray is about people who--none of whom realize--have lost themselves. Their routines have become habits of action without thought, and they've lost track of who they once aspired to be and to what might give their lives more meaning. They don't realize they themselves are lost, but they are all confronted, at the start of their stories, with the loss of something else, something unexpected and unrealistic. The opening sentence:
Mrs. Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight.
Another character goes to work one day only to discover his job has disappeared--it is as though the building never existed, all of the related contacts are gone from his phone, and there is no record of his employment or the company's existence. Another loses her sense of direction: if she walks so much as a block from her house, she is immediately disoriented and wandering.
The stories, along with those of a few other characters, are shared in a series of short, alternating chapters, vignettes that weave in, out, around, and through each other. Those people are all, of course, unmoored by their losses, forced out of their comfortable ruts and left to drift in confusion. And they are all gradually spurred to find solutions to their predicaments, to seek, hopefully (open-endedly), new habits and fulfillment.
Interspersed with the main stories are other, solitary scenes about lost things, some literal and others figurative, such as this one:
Winifred Graham lost her looks. She hunted for them carefully and methodically, but they were all gone. It seemed remarkable for them to have all disappeared at once, but although she tried, she could not find a single one.
Her looks had been so many. So many looks, and they were glorious: a look to show a secret, a look to freeze blood, one to curdle milk, a look of longing, a look of rejection, a look of despair. A look of love.
It would be several weeks before she managed to leave her house. To confront a world in which she would now have to rely on words.
Thankfully, Janina Matthewson has no problem relying on words; she manages them masterfully. And her tales of people learning new ways to confront the world entertain, arouse, and linger.