AUTHOR: EMMA DONOGHUE
GENRE: SHORT FICTION
COVER TYPE: HARD BACK
I read Donoghue’s novel Room for my book group over a year ago. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much. Donoghue has been on my radar since then. I couldn’t resist picking Astray up when I saw it in the library.
BLURB FROM THE COVER
Counterfeiter. Dishwasher. Prostitute. Attorney. Sculptor. Mercenary. Elephant. Corpse
The fascinating characters that roam across the pages of Emma Donoghue’s latest fact-inspired fictions have all gone astray: they are emigrants, runaways, drifters. They cross other borders, too: those of race, law, sex and sanity. They travel for love or money, incognito or under duress.
Donoghue describes the brutal plot hatched by a slave in conjunction with his master’s wife to set them both free; she draws out the difficulties of gold mining in the Yukon, even in the supposedly plentiful early days, and she takes us to an early Puritan community in Massachusetts unsettled by an invented sex scandal. Astray also includes ‘The Hunt’, a shocking confession of one soldier’s violent betrayal during the American Revolution, which has been shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Short Story Award.
Astray is a sequence of fourteen stories by the prize-winning author of Room and The Sealed Letter. These strange, true tales light up four centuries of wanderings, offering a past made up of deviations, and a surprising and moving history for restless times.
Off your tuck this morning, aren’t you? That’s not like you. It’s the chill perhaps. These March winds come straight from the Urals, up the Thames, or so they say. No, that’s not your favourite Horse Guards playing, can’t fool you; you never like it when they change the band. Fancy a bun? You’ll feel better for a good breakfast. Come along, have a couple of buns – Please yourself then (MAN AND BOY)
Astray offers quite a mixed bag of stories. Some were okay and others were great. The stories all sit firmly in the ‘historical fiction’ bracket. I’ve never read short fiction in this genre before so it was an interesting break from the norm. I really like that fact Donoghue included a little anecdote after each story of the real life events that inspired her.
Man and Boy is one of the weakest stories in the collection. It’s not the best story to open a collection with. It would have been better slipped into the middle almost unnoticed. The story is about a famous elephant from London Zoo called Jumbo and his keeper who left to join Barnum’s circus amid a storm of protest. Man and Boy has bright, tender moments but the historical details are put across awkwardly at times and the whole story come across as clunky.
Onward is marginally better than Man and Boy but not by much. The protagonist of the story, Caroline is a prostitute who dreams of a better life. She lives with her brother who has no idea what his sister does behind closed doors when he’s at work. They are given a chance at a new life by a mysterious benefactor who turns out to be Charles Dickens. I liked the idea of the story and it is well written. Onward just doesn’t spark enough.
The Widow’s Cruse is one of the best stories in Astray. Mrs Gomez’s husband is a merchant. While he’s away on business she breaks open the box where he keeps his will. All dressed in black she persuades a doctor that he has died so she can get her hands on his money. She leaves the country. This is well written and has plenty of spark.
Last Supper at Brown’s is also a very good story. A woman who feels trapped in her marriage persuades her husband’s coloured slave to kill her husband. They run off together. Last Supper at Brown’s is a delight to read.
Counting the Days is also a very good story. Donoghue offers us a tragic love story. An Irish immigrant couple are separated when he goes to America ahead of her. They write to each other for a long time until she can make the journey to join her husband. She arrives in America to discover he’s died of cholera. I thought Counting the Days was very sad and moving.
Snowblind was another great story. I liked it the best. Donohue uses the Goldrush in America as her source of inspiration. In Snowblind two young, slightly dim prospectors dream of making a fortune. They struggle through a sub-Arctic winter and see all their dreams dashed. Snowblind is well written and sad. It reminds me, for some reason of Brokeback Mountain by Anne Proulx.
The Long Way Home is a gem of story. I loved it. The protagonist is wild west eccentric Molly Monroe. She’s a bit like Calamity Jane. Kick-ass and feisty. The Long Way Home is a bit like Bad Girls. She struts into a bar and hijacks a useless drunkard who has abandoned his pregnant wife and young child and drags his sorry ass home. I found Donoghue’s ‘anecdote’ of Molly’s real story very sad. She was locked in an asylum for insanity because of her tendency to cross-dress, be promiscuous and drink like a fish.
The Body Swap is one of the weaker stories. A group of men decide to rob the grave of Abraham Lincoln. They are betrayed by one of their own kind, an undercover agent for the Secret Service. The story is well written but like Man and Boy and Onward fails to spark enough.
The Gift is a so-so story. It wasn’t as weak as The Body Swap but not as enjoyable as some of the other stories. The Gift takes the form of a series of letters between a woman who gave away her baby because she couldn’t take care of it, the owner of the New York Foundling Hospital that she signed her child over to and the couple who adopted her daughter. The letters deal with the mother’s thwarted attempts to get her daughter back. The story is well written and sparks at moments but not enough to make it leap off the page.
The Lost Seed is the most unsettling story in the collection. The protagonist is man who starts to accuse various neighbours of sex crimes. His accusations and evidence have tragic consequences for the people he accuses. Donoghue hints that he is the real monster who practices sinful sexual practices and his accusation are a way of hiding his own guilt. Well written and luminous.
Vanitas is another so-so story. The subject matter is quite horrific. The narrator is a young Creole girl who lives on a plantation. She subtly reveals the horrors of life on the plantation and the breeding program that populates the place with young black children. The narrator is a teenage girl concerned with her appearance and clothes and looking pretty. Her voice weakens what could have been a powerful story.
The Hunt chilled me to the bone. Donoghue offers us the chilling account of rape as a war crime committed by British forces during the American Revolution. What made The Hunt so chilling is that Donoghue offers us a little grain of the horror at a time. I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on until the last sentence and which point my jaw hit the ground.
Daddy’s Girl is the tale of a man called Murray Hall who died on 1901 when he was almost seventy. After his death it was discovered to be a woman. Daddy’s Girl is from the point of view of his daughter who refused to accept the truth. I think this true story also inspired Jackie’s Kay’s brilliant novel Trumpet. I thought this was very good but again the narrator weakened the impact of the story.
What Remains is another weak offering. Two women move from the USA to Canada for the sake of their careers as sculptors. They were devoted to each other. They spent also sixty years at each other’s side. What Remains looks at the death of one of the women. What Remains is well written but lacks oomph.
Astray is a mixed bag of a collection. There are some weak stories. Astray opens and closes with very weak stories. I felt like put a damper on the whole collection. It sets the reader up with negative expectations when a story opens with a clunker. There are at least four stories Donoghue would have been better of cutting out completely. The strong stories aren’t enough to make up for the damage caused by the weak ones.