Madeira Mondays: Astray by Emma Donoghue (Book Review)

‘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 their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray

I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.

cover Astray

It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.

I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.

My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.

What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.

My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.

In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.

All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

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