‘Astray’ by Emma Donoghue

Irish author, Emma Donoghue, of course, is most famous for Room, an international bestseller which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Her newest publication, a collection of short stories, has been hailed by such authors as Ann Patchett and Colum McCann, who states that, ‘In her hands the centuries dissolve, and then they crystallize back again into powerful words on the page’.

Astray is split into three sections – ‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’ and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’. Throughout, Donoghue has used many different periods and places, ranging from London in 1882, New York City in 1735 and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1849, to the Yukon in 1896 and Cape Cod in 1639. The titles of the tales within the pages of Astray all intrigue in some way: ‘Snowblind’, ‘The Body Swap’, ‘Vanitas’, ‘Last Supper at Brown’s’ and ‘The Gift’, to name but a few.

Each story in this collection is followed by the factual inspiration behind it. The events and characters whom Donoghue has used are far-reaching in themselves. Tales are historically set amongst the ‘Orphan Trains’, the Irish Potato Famine and natural disasters. We learn of Caroline Thompson, whose passage to Canada was paid in full by Charles Dickens, and the story of Negro Brown, who ‘killed his master in Texas in 1864 and “throughout all his wanderings… he was accompanied by his slain master’s wife”’. The international gold rush of the late nineteenth century in the Yukon inspires ‘two fictional partners… as the news of the Klondike discovery hit’.

Throughout, Donoghue has used a series of literary techniques to present her stories. Here, we find the first, second and third person perspectives, as well as a tale told entirely through correspondence. Her storylines are both varied and unusual. In ‘Man and Boy’, the story is addressed to an African elephant named Jumbo, who is housed by the London Zoological Society: ‘No other keeper here can handle him; every time I assign you an assistant, the creature terrorises the fellow and sends him packing’. In ‘The Long Way Home’, we learn about the feisty Mollie Monroe of Arizona, and throughout the book, we find a wealth of criminals and victims. In ‘The Gift’, a baby of ‘one hundred percent American parentage’ is (supposedly temporarily) given up by her mother, who cannot currently afford to keep her.

Astray features a great selection of tales, and there is sure to be something within its covers which will appeal to everyone. The imagery throughout is lovely, and the sense of time and place has been wonderfully crafted without exception. The stories of each and every character and situation seem of equal importance to Donoghue. There is nothing which she does not devote enough time, effort or consideration to, and she is sympathetic to them all. The majority of the tales here are rather unhappy ones, and there is an overriding feeling of melancholy in the book, but her stories are still sure to delight.

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