Book review – Astray by Emma Donoghue

Astray coverIn her short story collection Astray, author Emma Donoghue takes us on a journey that leads us through time and across oceans deep into the lives of people both real and imagined (sometimes a skilful blend of the two). We encounter their hardships, bear witness to their darkest deeds, share in their triumphs, and hope, very much hope, that a happy ending is just over the next horizon.

It’s a reminder that travel was once only for the intrepid, the desperate and those determined to find a better life. As a historian, Donoghue is adept at taking shreds of ephemera and transforming it into something with body and spirit, and with each of these tales, she reveals something of the era, and the people concerned

Following each story is a brief explanation of its origins, including the facts that inspired the fiction. More than once I found myself surprised by which pieces were true, and which made up – evidence, I think, both of Donoghue’s powerful imagination and reality’s tendencies towards peculiarity.

A zoo keeper makes a decision about his beloved elephant; a young soldier acts against his better judgement to follow orders; a Creole girl divines her family’s past using the bible and a shining charm bracelet; a woman discovers that her deceased father was a woman. Some of the stories will sweep you along more than others, and likewise, some characters, but not all, leap and soar from the page, crackling with life.

Prospector, cowboy, cook and saloonkeeper Mollie Monroe of The Long Way Home is a particular joy, while in What Remains, the tenderness and frustration of sculptor Florence Wyle dealing with the senility of her beloved Queenie offers an insight into the migration many of us make at the latter end of our life, far beyond our control.

All of these journeys are either to, from or within North America, echoing the author’s own emigration from Ireland to England and Canada. In the Afterword she writes poignantly of the sensation of returning to her Canadian city: “Why am I landing here, out of all the possible spots on the turning globe? Why is this home? It’s in my stomach that I register the protest, as the plane dips to the runway: what unfamiliar fields are these? I’ve gone astray, stepped off some invisible track that I was born to follow.”

Donoghue’s stories are both alien and familiar, run through with both a yearning for home and a perilous hunger for the future.

Astray by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador and available to buy from Amazon.

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