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Published: Sunday, 11/18/2012

Characters go ‘Astray’ in Emma Donoghue’s latest


In her novel Room, Emma Donoghue let us see the world from the van­tage point of a lit­tle boy in an 11-by-11-foot room. In the sto­ries gath­ered in Astray, Donoghue busts loose, re­turn­ing to her roots in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion by go­ing forth into the wider world.

Donoghue’s fel­low trav­el­ers are voy­ag­ers who, be­tween 1639 and 1968, left the world they knew for un­dis­cov­ered coun­tries from which they never re­turned. Each of their sto­ries is in­tro­duced by a date and lo­cale and fol­lowed by a brief snip­pet, rang­ing from a few lines to a few para­graphs, in which Donoghue grounds her flights of fancy in the his­tory in­spir­ing them.

In the ini­tial sec­tion of Astray, each such flight in­volves an es­cape from con­fine­ments which, while less dra­matic than the one in Room, has nar­rowed their pro­tag­o­nists’ choices.

In the first, an el­e­phant and his keeper leave Lon­don’s zoo, bound for new ad­ven­tures in Amer­ica. In an­other, a Jew­ish woman in 18th-cen­tury New York con­fronts her own alien­ation in a cul­ture that doesn’t un­der­stand her.

In Last Sup­per at Brown’s, a slave and his mas­ter’s wife con­tem­plate a new life. In On­ward, a young woman longs for a chance to start over — away from the hyp­o­crit­i­cal world of Vic­to­rian En­gland, in which she was forced into pros­ti­tu­tion af­ter she and her brother were or­phaned.

Each of these sto­ries con­firms Donoghue’s ob­ser­va­tion, in an il­lu­mi­nat­ing af­ter­word, that mi­grants are of­ten strang­ers in the land they leave as well as the one they seek — “strays,” to use her word, who cross le­gal, ra­cial, and sex­ual bound­aries as well as geo­graphic ones.

Men re­al­ize that they love other men. A woman be­comes a cow­boy in un­tamed Ari­zona. Another woman be­comes a ci­gar-chomp­ing pol­i­ti­cian in the Tam­many Hall ma­chine.

Not all of Donoghue’s char­ac­ters can han­dle the free­dom their ad­ven­tures make pos­si­ble. In the mid­dle and fi­nal sec­tions of Astray, men and women try­ing on new iden­ti­ties of­ten re­treat in fear upon see­ing what they find.

In the col­lec­tion’s three best sto­ries, Donoghue’s char­ac­ters per­se­vere, com­ing to ac­cept that their jour­neys into new ter­ri­to­ries of the self will nec­es­sar­ily be par­tial: in­com­plete, lim­ited by how lit­tle any of us can ever see and there­fore nec­es­sar­ily in­clud­ing loss.

In Count­ing the Days, Donoghue draws from sur­viv­ing let­ters of an Ir­ish cou­ple as she jour­neys west from fam­ine-blighted Ire­land to join him in Can­ada; we see all that they share de­spite their many dif­fer­ences — along with the dis­tance keep­ing them apart.

The Gift — com­prised of in­vented let­ters — fea­tures a Jer­sey City mother “whose only crime was pov­erty” and the el­derly Iowa cou­ple who raise her daugh­ter when she her­self can­not. When the mother’s fi­nances im­prove, the Iowans refuse to give the be­loved girl back. Donoghue suc­cess­fully sees things from both sides, forc­ing us to do so as well.

In What Re­mains, which closes the col­lec­tion, an 85-year-old To­ronto woman wres­tles with the grow­ing de­men­tia in her fe­male part­ner of 60 years. A sculp­tor, Florence looks on her be­loved Quee­nie’s face and sees a “blank, like a block of mar­ble that’s never been touched by the chisel.”

But Florence knows there is a “shape locked in­side the mar­ble,” and this beau­ti­ful story helps us see it, giv­ing us a pic­ture of a char­is­matic and vi­brant woman. This col­lec­tion is filled with such acts of imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy — each chis­el­ing all that one can, from what Donoghue aptly de­scribes as “the shad­owy mass of all that’s been lost.”

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