Title: Astray
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Picador (October 25, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1447209494
ISBN-13: 978-1447209492

Emma Donoghue’s tightly written offering of fourteen short stories in ‘Astray’, although small in number, should be read as a considerable contribution to the understanding of what many who venture far away from home experience and endure. As Donoghue says in the ‘Afterword’, ‘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.’

Each story has two parts: the fictitious account of the protagonist and the factual information the story is based on. This factual information is often derived from public records of a time past. For example, ‘The Gift’ is a story about adopting a child and its consequences, but it is based on entries made in a census taken years ago. ‘Counting the Days’ is based on actual letters Henry Johnson and Jane McConnell Johnson published by their great-granddaughter Louise Wyatt. And ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is based on articles published in the newspapers.

Donoghue is an Irish writer who was born in Dublin, lived in London for a time and now calls Canada home. Her previous works include ‘Slammerkin’, ‘Life Mask’, ‘Touchy Subjects’, ‘The Sealed Letter’ and ‘Room’ (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes).

It is stated on her website (emmadonoghue.com) that ‘Astray’ was shortlisted for the 2012 Eason Irish Novel of the Year and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. One of the stories in the collection, ‘The Hunt’ was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. The book was also longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction. She also writes about the close connection she has with all the members of her family and her happy childhood.

What is arresting about this collection is that the stories are arranged in a particular sequence – people who are leaving a place or situation, people who are in transit and what happens to people after they arrive at their destinations. This structured and thought out approach makes one feel as though they’re on a journey or sorts with the Donoghue. For example, there is a tale of a slave who hatches a plot with the mistress of the house to run away from a cruel master (‘Last Supper At Brown’s’). There is a tale of a dying husband who knows that he will not live to see his wife who is travelling to meet him (‘Counting the Days’). And there is a horrific story of a soldier who takes part in the violence towards a girl he supposedly rescues (‘The Hunt’).

What makes all these tales exceptional is the use of language and dialogue. For example, the slave mentioned above thinks and speaks exactly as how one would expect such a character to. In ‘Last Supper At Brown’s’, Donoghue writes: ‘My name Nigger Brown … Missus done came in the kitchen this morning … She don’t call me boy, like Marse do.’ Then there is the story the Creoles told by a girl who writes, ‘I would have been born a French mademoiselle. …, but Maman prefers to call us French.’ This amazing ability to write in precise dialect is was sets Donoghue apart from many of today’s writers.

It is also in her turn of phrase that Donoghue displays a clever use of literary technique. The best example of this is in ‘Counting the Days’ where the husband, at one point, says, ‘The hard fact is, she needs him more than he needs her.’ Several paragraphs later, the point of view changes completely when the wife says, ‘The hard fact is, he needs her more than she needs him.’

Finally, Donoghue writes that, ‘tales of emigration turn into tales of transformation, as if changing place is just a cover for changing yourself.’ Perhaps, for an aspiring writer, the transformation that occurs when reading ‘Astray’ is this: when he finishes the book, he may whisper a confession: “I want to write like Donoghue.”

Reviewed by Moira Tan
(June 2015)

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