Emma Donoghue, Astray
Far-flung tales of immigration and exile linked by a common humanity.
Loosely organized around themes of displacement and exile, Emma Donoghue’s follow up to her shattering Room is something of a palate cleanser. Its 14 tales are historical in origin, spanning from the American Revolution to the 20th century, and most are set in or at least point toward the New World, mirroring Donoghue’s status as an expatriate Irishwoman living in Canada.
As one would expect from a collection whose origins span more than a decade – the earliest were published in 1998, the latest in 2012 – the stories vary widely in tone. The notes that follow each one, detailing their factual bases and often serving as an extra-textual epilogue, also serve as speed bumps, reminding readers to pause and reset before continuing on. From “Man and Boy,” in which a British elephant trainer’s prized animal is sold into P.T. Barnum’s care, to “What Remains,” wherein Canadian sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle cope with their descent into dementia, each brief episode is an undiscovered country with its own rules, its own way of being.
The stories in Astray never wear out their welcome, and the best use their brevity as a weapon. “Counting the Days” interweaves the thoughts of a husband and wife separated by a transatlantic crossing. As she flees the Irish famine, he lies dying, choleric, in Montreal, the story’s structure fashioning a reunion that will never be, a dream cut short. “The Hunt” finds its way into the redcoats’ ranks via a young German mercenary, little more than a slave himself. As the British soldiers systematically rape every woman and girl they come across, the young boy absents himself, leaving the worst atrocities outside his field of vision but well within the range of our imagination.
So it is too with the connections between Astray‘s far-flung tales. There’s little overlap, but together they form a partly finished map, leaving readers to chart their own course and navigate the wilds between them.