Astray by Emma Donoghue
I was looking forward to reading Astray, Emma Donoghue's new collection of short stories, admittedly because a couple of summers ago I enjoyed Donoghue's much-lauded 2010 fiction release, Room. I often seek out short stories; if an author has published a collection of short stories as well as a novel, I try to read both. It is typically obvious by the subject matter, writing style, and overall tone, that the same author wrote both the short stories and the novel -- I did not find this to be the case with Donoghue's writing. These two books of Donoghue's are so different from each other that I found myself repeatedly confirming the fact that my review copy of Astray says, right there on the front cover, "Author of the national bestseller Room."
Astray is divided into three sections, "Departures," "In Transit," and "Arrivals and Aftermaths," each containing four or five stories. Each story takes place in a different location, in a different time period. Donoghue's stories span from the 1700s all the way through the 1960s, from London to Louisiana, from the Yukon to Chicago. She transitions her writing alarmingly well, convincingly nailing dialects and figures of speech as she travels around the world and through time. After finishing the first story, "Man and Boy," I was surprised to see a page-long history at its end. This story of the relationship between a zookeeper and an elephant is based on both actual newspaper reports and witness accounts from the late nineteenth century. Donoghue used some creative license and lots of imagination to turn this recorded history into a successful story. As I flipped through the remainder of the book, the nerd in me delighted that every story has a short history after it.
I didn't know a lot about Emma Donoghue before I began reading Astray, but the amazing diversity of her writing made me want to learn more about the author, so I did a little research. I learned that Donoghue was born in Dublin, Ireland and moved to London, Ontario in 1998. According to her website, she is best known for her fiction, but is also a playwright, and a literary historian. Donoghue herself cites in Astray's afterword that, "I've gone astray, stepped off some invisible track that I was born to follow. How did I get here?" Her own immigration seems to have inspired this collection of beautifully written and simple short stories, all of which are about different varieties of travelers -- emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways.
One of my favorite stories in this collection, "Counting the Days," is, in fact, a story of an immigration from Ireland to Canada. The story takes place in and around The Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1849. It is the story of the days preceding a reunion between a husband and wife, Henry and Jane Johnson. Donoghue's plot is a simple one: Henry has already immigrated to Québec and Jane is on a boat en route from Belfast to Canada to meet up with Henry. Jane, traveling with their children, is isolated on the boat and desperate for any news from the outside world. "What has appalled her the most on this little floating world of the Riverdale is not the squalor, nor the hunger, but the dearth of news." She reads Henry's letters even though they are "too few: crumbs to her appetite." The story goes back and forth between the two characters, leading up to this supposed meeting, and offers two very different accounts. Jane's is one of internal struggle; her emotions are tumultuous, her longing for Henry and adult camaraderie so great. "She is so weary of the feel of children, even her own beloved children; she wants a shoulder high enough to lean on, arms as hard as her own." Unbeknownst to Jane, Henry's struggle alone in Canada is far more physical, as he grows sicker and sicker from cholera, "a disease familiar to those who are herded from country to country, from city to city."
Many, if not all, of the stories in this collection are rather dark. Despite this, Donoghue still manages to sneak in some imaginative humor, her wit hiding in the worst of circumstances, which makes it all the wittier. Take for example this description of the state of supplies aboard the Riverdale: "The provisions might almost have lasted, if it hadn't been for the heat and the maggots in the ham." Because Donoghue's stories are simple, the reader can focus on her writing style. Like the humor, the figures of speech in Astray are wonderfully unique. Some favorites include: "Hughes releases a sigh like air from a tire," "Today her hands lie on a sheet like withered bananas," and "His nerves are spiders' webs beneath his skin." My favorite line of the entire collection appears in the final story, "What Remains": "In the evening there was chamber music, and I drank too much wine and was persuaded to show them all how to do an Illinois hog call." It makes me smile every time I read it, especially given that this is a story about two eighty-year-old former sculptors, Florence and Queenie, living in an assisted living facility.
Donoghue has also mastered the art of creating truly relatable characters. A feat, given that a contemporary reader of this book has little in common as far as time period or setting. In the same story, "What Remains," the two women manage to get someone to take them out of the facility for a short period of time. In the car, Florence wistfully looks out at the passing Toronto cityscape, "not letting myself wonder if this is the last time I'll ever see the city." Witnessing Queenie succumb to dementia, Florence contemplates the end of her life, and what will inevitably be taken from her -- something all of us have likely done at some point. In addition to Florence, during my reading, I also easily sympathized with a girl living on a Louisiana plantation in the early 1800s, a farm girl during the Revolutionary War, and an early twentieth century daughter of a closeted transgender man. I have no actual life experience with any of those scenarios.
Astray is a unique collection of stark, historical fiction. This book likely won't share the viral omnipresence that Room received a couple of years ago. However, for a reader appreciative of this genre, Donoghue's exquisite writing, some unexpected humor, and her dynamic characters all make this book a satisfyingly, smart read.
Astray by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company