Astray by Emma Donoghue
Release date: 2012 / 288 pages
Synopsis(from Amazon): The fascinating characters that roam across the pages of Emma Donoghue’s stories have all gone astray: they are emigrants, runaways, drifters, lovers old and new. They are gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross other borders too: those of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, incognito or under duress. With rich historical detail, the celebrated author of Room takes us from puritan Massachusetts to revolutionary New Jersey, antebellum Louisiana to the Toronto highway, lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present. Astray offers us a surprising and moving history for restless times.
Review: When Emma Donoghue’s publisher contacted me about reading and reviewing Astray, I jumped at the chance without knowing anything about the subject matter. I had read Room and was astonished by how exceptionally dark and disturbing, and well-written in the perspective of a young boy, it was. Room was also exceptionally hard to put down and impossible to forget.
Astray is not a novel but a collection of historically fictionalized — or fictionalized historical — vignettes that nevertheless fit nearly every descriptor above. The scenes are very short — most shorter than 20 pages — yet completely engrossing. Each story transported me far from my home and time into an unfortunate situation that was completely plausible and gripping. In each case, Donoghue has taken a tidbit from history — a newspaper clipping or snippet of a journal (explained at the end of each story) — and woven a tapestry of living breathing individuals no longer bound by history or mortality.
The collection is organized according to the following subtitles: Departures, In Transit, Arrivals and Aftermaths. One story, in 1854 London, involves a woman forced into prostitution to support her young son and brother. In another, 1864 in Texas, a slave decides to free both himself and the wife of his owner in a harrowing and desperate act. In Jersey City 1877, a woman is forced to give up her daughter and then attempts to regain custody as told through a series of letters to the children’s home. Donoghue does not reveal the historical inspiration until the end of each vignette, and I was often tempted to take a peek before I began each story. But when I was able to restrain myself, I was gratified. As Donoghue writes in the Afterword, “Sometimes it is easier to write a story if you start by knowing very little about the characters: just a single spark to fall on the tinder.” As a reader, I have also found this to be true, refraining from reading plot summaries before embarking on a new novel. So, I would recommend not peeking at the historical bits until after you have read the story. But be sure to read the Afterword at the very end.
In her Afterword, Donoghue delineates the unifying principle of the title “Astray” — both geographically and morally — and is generous in sharing her process as a craftswoman and as a individual: “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.” Those who have read Room can see how this fascination resonates there as well. On a personal note, I felt a true kinship with Donoghue after reading that she, too, left her place of birth and lives with the sense of “…Unease. Wonder. Melancholy. Irritation. Relief. Shame. Absentmindedness. Nostalgia. Self-righteousness. Guilt. Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form. Migration is mortality by another name, the itch we can’t scratch. Perhaps because moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life. Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch: my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality.” I love that last, lingering image of the “claustrophobia of individuality.”
I strongly recommend this collection to book clubs — Astray could be a good holiday choice since members can read as many or as few stories as energy and time allows. Interested in winning a copy? Please leave me a comment below and I’ll choose a winner soon!