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A young woman in Victorian London, forced into prostitution to support her family, grasps at a new life. A childlike German mercenary, fighting for the British during the American Revolution, is pressured into using rape as a weapon. Two prospectors in the Yukon Gold Rush bed down together to survive a bitter winter. These are just some of the wanderers who populate Emma Donoghue’s fascinating new collection of stories, Astray (Little, Brown and Company).
The acclaimed author of Room here serves up a rich roster of tales, written over the past 15 years, each based on some factual item she’d unearthed in journalistic sources from as far back as the 1600s. “Four centuries of wandering that have profound echoes in the present,” she explains.
As her characters cross geographical borders as well as frontiers of race, law, sex, and sanity, the most unlikely love stories surface. A great romance between a circus elephant and his trainer requires compromises when outsiders can’t seem to understand. A white lie told by a privileged Creole girl in antebellum Louisiana has life-threatening consequences beyond her imagining. Two acclaimed sculptresses, now disintegrating into old age, remember their livelier, unconventional pasts in a yarn that O. Henry would be proud of.
Donoghue’s gift for storytelling is remarkable, whether she’s spinning out a good old-fashioned melodrama (body snatchers raiding Lincoln’s tomb; a master swindler swindled) or subtly commenting on some modern issue by examining it in an earlier time (a crossdressing woman doing “a man’s job” in the Old West and suffering the wrath of conservative “justice”). Can any reader not discern a present-day counterpart in her tale of the self-hating and resentful Puritan who finds immorality where none exists?
Colum McCann calls Donoghue “one of the great literary ventriloquists of our time,” and in Astray she easily shifts voices, manipulates tenses, makes use of any number of narrative devices from diary entries and letters to conversations and straightforward third-person narration. The rebellious slave on a Texas farm who finds an unlikely ally also longing to be free. The Manhattan debutante who tries to maintain an even keel as a shocking family secret swiftly pulls the rug of her own identity out from under her. Donoghue is in solid control throughout, never faltering, never hitting an off note as she navigates the vagaries of her wide-ranging material.
But perhaps her most impressive writerly talent here is her skill at releasing information. She plays with time, uses flashback and memory, introduces moments that are wholly unexpected. This book offers a real adventure in reading. We’re settling comfortably into a story when – surprise! — we have to dodge a literary curveball that makes us rethink everything we’ve read so far. We frequently realize things about individuals long before they do, often tragic circumstances we’re powerless to stop.
Casually introduced details bring the characters viscerally to life. The mourning widow whose “throat moved as if she’d swallowed a stone.” The Puritan’s note in the margins of his bible that mosquitoes “bite us until we are striped with blood.” The sculptress who remembers her vivacious girlfriend as always having “a trail of ash across her front because she was too busy talking to remember the ashtray.” The young soldier at the Revolutionary front who remarks that “the snows are as dense as cake,” a metaphor particularly suited to his youth, his innocent cravings.
For me, the book’s afterword is one of its most satisfying gifts. Donoghue, in a wonderfully conversational style, generously lets us in on her artistic process, the thoughts she had while writing these stories, how her creative mind sparked at the source material (which is noted at the end of each tale). “Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways — they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of depth.” She knows whereof she speaks, being an Irish emigrant twice over (once to study at Cambridge, then to move to Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their two children). “By long tradition,” she tells us, “Irish writers emigrate. Not always, of course, not nowadays – but still, many of us fly the coop. It’s a small island, after all.”
Writing, Donoghue confides, “lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, walk more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same. May the road rise with you.”
In Astray, the road she leads us along rises mightily.
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company
Hardcover, 9780316206297, 288 pp.