Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)
Emma Donoghue is best- known for her contemporary novel Room (2010), but most of her fiction to date has been historical, as is the story collection Astray. Some of these tales dramatise the lives of specific (though often largely forgotten) characters from history, others create fictional faces for real events; but all are based to some degree on incidents of travel to, from, or within North America.
Donoghue has a keen eye for an interesting or unusual story. The very first piece in the book, ‘Man and Boy’ is about Jumbo, an elephant who was sold to Barnum’s circus; as narrator, his keeper in London narrates his sorrow and frustration at having to let Jumbo go. In ‘The Widow’s Cruse’, a New York attorney named Huddlestone thinks he has the measure of Mrs Gomez, a young widow who comes seeking his services. The stage is set for Huddlestone to make a pretty penny – but all is not quite as it seems. Mrs Gomez and Huddlestone both create strong impressions in the reader; these two stories illustrate what we see time and again in Astray – history painted in bold colours or from unexpected angles.
Two of my favourite stories in the collection alternate between perspectives, to considerable effect. ‘The Gift’ tells of a girl given up for adoption in the late 19th century, and the battle fought over her by the girl’s birth mother and adoptive father. This story is told entirely in the form of letters written to the anonymous adoption agency – so the two narrators never communicate directly, and the girl’s voice is never even heard. The poignancy of ‘The Gift’ lies in the sense of a life being pushed around by forces beyond the individual’s control, and that any hope of a resolution lies impossibly far away.
‘Counting the Days’ moves between Jane and Henry Johnson: she is on the last day of a voyage from Belfast to Québec, where he already waits. But, while Jane looks forward to a joyful reunion and a new life together in Canada, Henry is unwell – and we know that Jane’s dreams are not to be. Donoghue presents this piece without breaks between scenes, which not only emphasises the closeness, the mirroring of the two protagonists; it also denies the reader space to separate the two mentally. We’re not reading about two chains of events, but about a single one that spirals down to a bitterly ironic conclusion. The characters in Astray may travel, but not all of their journeys finish.
This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.