The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Astray by Emma Donoghue, reviewed by Sarah Schofield

by Emma Donoghue

Picador, 2012

Reviewed by Sarah Schofield

“‘Could you bear it, really, Caro? Leaving England behind?’ What’s the harm in humouring him? ‘I expect I would hate it at first,’ she says quietly. Fred’s face falls. ‘But I could get used to it, I believe. We all could, especially Pet.’ Her throat locks on the syllable. To really live. Not walled up. ‘Oh, sis. A fresh start!’ ‘People do it every day,’ she says, a little giddy. Is she deluding herself that she could be anything but what she is? When you change countries, perhaps your old self stays fixed to your back, like a turtle’s shell.”

Through these beautifully crafted stories, Donoghue breathes life into characters who might otherwise be marginalized as unimportant. Some based on real figures, others interpretive, representative or imagined, they all push to survive at the verges of society. They are the ones often overlooked in history books. As Donoghue notes in her afterword, they are characters “out of place, out of their depth.”

In each narrative, the characters are somehow astray, away from the familiar, either through their own choices or the unbidden circumstances of their lives. The collection is divided into three parts; Departures, In Transit and Arrivals And Aftermaths. The stories are united in this feeling of movement – of journey – of resettling into the new.

Often, this is geographical; emigration is a repeated motif in a number of the stories. For example, Counting the Days, a narrative intimately sharing point of view and letters between Henry, who is newly emigrated from Belfast to Canada, and his wife, Jane, sailing to join him.

But more fundamentally, characters also stray across the boundaries of society and expectation; as in The Widow’s Cruse, which challenges feminine nature, and in Daddy’s Girl, dealing with gender identity. In one way or another all of the stories touch on both these physical and metaphorical aspects, as exemplified in Onward, where emigration becomes a potent escape possibility for a woman forced into prostitution to support her brother and child (see quote above). In her afterword, Donoghue says, “straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one.”

Some of the stories explore being astray, estranged, from your heritage, about inaccessibility to roots, like the narrator of Daddy’s Girl and the silent central little girl in The Gift, a story told in letters to the New York Children’s Aid Society from her biological mother and adoptive father. There’s hunger to know our past, our people and home. And the human desire to recreate this ‘home’ in disparate places is shown in the two gold- seeking partners in Snowblind. This theme throughout the book gives unity, but allows enough scope for each story to shine individually; each adding a unique facet to the collection.

Donoghue uses newspapers, texts and archive sources to inspire the voices in this collection. Each story is accompanied by an afterword on the fact behind her fiction. Sometimes these sources were generous and provided lots of details to Donoghue, for example with Man and Boy – about an elephant keeper – and Jumbo, sold by London Zoological Society to Barnum’s Circus in 1882. At the time, Jumbo’s story inspired articles, songs, cartoons and souvenirs; all rich pickings for a brilliant reframing of this narrative.

For others, Donoghue re-imagines a story from the merest scraps. The Lost Seed springs from just a handful of legal records. This is, for me, the stand out story in the collection. It is set in Cape Cod, 1639, and narrated by settler and legalistic troublemaker Richard Berry, grappling with the restraints, desires and loneliness of the new plantation existence; “may we cast off the old sins of England like dust from our boots,” he says. I single out this story as a favourite because of the brilliantly handled unreliable narrator and the tremendous care taken over what is left unsaid. The reader must look between the lines. For example, when Richard says; “I am still unmarried. I thought on Sarah White but she laughs overmuch”, the reader feels the complexity of desire, morality and rejection within this. I hugely admire Donoghue’s restraint. I wonder whether in writing this sort of factual/fictional story, it is more stimulating and freeing to have less archive information, and perhaps this is where this story’s success, in part, lies.

I also love Last Supper at Brown’s, which explores limitations of race and sex in 19th century Texas. It is effective because of the pitch-perfect voice and simple telling, which puts into relief the jeopardy of the tale. Interestingly, this story also originated from just a small round up of newspaper cuttings. The weak note in this collection is The Body Swap, about the attempted snatch and ransom of Abraham Lincoln’s body. This is a well-documented event in history and I feel that this is perhaps its flaw; it is a little too restrained by the abundance of historical fact to allow the characters to sing with the same power as the others in the collection.

This is a deeply satisfying and rich collection. It is surprising, painful and delightful. It taps into very fundamental feelings of being astray, somehow detached, untethered; our quest for freedom and escape and also our desire for home.

Read Daddy’s Girl from Astray here

About the author: Emma Donoghue is a prizewinning writer of short story collections including Kissing the Witch (1997) and The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002), and novels including Slammerkin (2011) and award winning bestseller Room (2010). Donoghue lives in London, Ontario with her partner and two children.

About the reviewer: Sarah Schofield’s short stories are published in Comma Press anthologies Lemistry, Bio Punk, Thought X and About You and also Litfest’s Flax #030: The Language of Footprints, Writer’s Forum and various women’s magazines. Writing credits include Writers Inc and The Calderdale Short Story Competition, The Guardian Travel Writing Competition and the Bridport shortlist.

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