Far afield with 'Astray'

Emma Donoghue follows her stunning novel 'Room' with a story collection based on cold, hard facts

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Emma Donoghue, the versatile Irish-Canadian writer, returns to her roots in historical fiction with a collection of 14 short stories that span two continents and more than 300 years.

Rejecting the literary trend of linking stories to achieve a more novelistic whole, the tales in "Astray" are wildly diverse, connected only thematically, but even there by a very thin thread. In each story the characters are in some way unsettled, in conflict with their environments -- natural or societal. Some are literally on the move, either fleeing from or venturing toward; others cross boundaries not charted on any maps.

As Ms. Donoghue tells us in an illuminating afterword, "Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected .... 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 their depth." Some set themselves apart by flouting conventions of law or race; others disguise themselves by wearing the clothes of the opposite sex.

By Emma Donoghue.
Little, Brown and Co. ($24.99).

In one of the book's most affecting stories, "Counting the Days," we meet geographical wanderers Jane Johnson and her two children, actually "at sea," on a ship taking them from Belfast to Quebec in 1849, at the peak of Ireland's famine. Jane's husband, Henry, already in Canada for a year, is preparing for his family's arrival. Through narrative and lines quoted from letters the two have exchanged during their separation, we gain insight into their individual personalities and their marriage and can't help but be touched by their optimistic hopes for a better life.

When, unknown to her, Jane's husband succumbs to cholera on the very day that she arrives in Quebec, it seems a too-facile, O. Henry-like plot twist. However, we learn in an endnote that Jane and Henry actually existed, and the story is based on fact, with quoted lines taken verbatim from letters later published by a Johnson descendant. In fact, each of the stories in this collection was inspired by some historical event or person, discovered by the author in old newspapers or archives.

By sharing the geneses for each of the stories in brief endnotes and in the afterword, Ms. Donoghue allows the reader a fascinating glimpse into the imaginative process, an opportunity to follow the path from inspiration to creation. The device also strengthens our connection to the large cast of characters that enter and exit quickly in so many short pieces. One of the greatest challenges of the short story is to develop a character in a few pages, and the factual details and historical context flesh out what might otherwise seem to be too sketchily drawn portraits.

The author's extensive research results in a strong sense of place and time for each of the stories, and her skillful use of vernacular is convincing. Yet these very strengths contribute to the somewhat jarring transitions as we travel back and forth through time. Despite Ms. Donoghue's breadth of imagination, crystalline writing and ability to create compelling, "true" voices for her characters, I found myself craving a dose of Dramamine halfway through this book.

It may not be fair to expect coherence or harmony in a collection of stories that were written over a dozen years. At the same time, it is disorienting to read all these tales together, even grouped as they are into three thematic sections: "Departures," "In Transit," "Arrivals and Aftermaths."

The first story, "Man and Boy," takes us to London in 1882, with a tender monologue by a keeper at the London Zoological Society directed at Jumbo the elephant, who has been sold to P.T. Barnum to be displayed in America in the Greatest Show on Earth. Later we are transported to Puritan New England through another revealing monologue by a Cape Cod resident who accused several neighbors of various sexual crimes.

Other stories move from Louisiana in 1839, to Civil War Texas, on to a prospectors' camp in the Yukon during the Gold Rush, from which two young men flee from their love for one another. We join British and German troops in colonial New Jersey in the sad and chilling "The Hunt," then learn along with a young woman in 1901 New York that her famous and powerful father was actually a woman. We land finally in Ontario in 1968 with a lovely story of love and loss between two octogenarian women sculptors. Whew.

In her astonishing 2010 novel, "Room," Emma Donoghue told a riveting story from the perspective of a 5-year-old, who along with his mother is imprisoned in a single room. It is ironic that the book that follows that claustrophobic tale should suffer from the opposite predicament -- it covers too much ground.


Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (eweiner100@gmail.com)


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