Astray, By Emma Donoghue
A little bit of fact, a little bit of fiction
Straying, as Emma Donoghue writes in her afterword, has "always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected". They certainly are in this collection of 14 short stories, written over 15 years. They are gathered into themed sections – "Departures", "In Transit", "Arrivals and Aftermaths" – and many pivot on not only a physical journey, but also a transgression of some kind: a crime or deceit, an act of love forbidden on grounds of gender or race, or – as in more than one tale – a spot of rebellious cross-dressing.
She's best known for her last novel, the gut-gripping, Booker-nominated Room, but Donoghue also writes historical fiction, and these stories range from 1639 to 1967, with the majority set in the 19th century. Suffice to say, Donoghue's female protagonists are rarely good little housewives; the collection continues her interest in gutsy women from the margins of history.
And they are all, crucially, based on true events. At the end of each is a brief note explaining its historical source. Sometimes these fill in pretty significant details, acting as a big reveal – as in "Onward", where a benefactor who enables a young prostitute to emigrate turns out to be a famous author. Several yarns are built up from mere lines in news reports of the time, be they of a woman who pretended her husband was dead to get his cash or another who let her slave bump off her husband so they could run away together.
Characters are always vividly voiced – you can hear a cowboy drawl or Noo York twang, be transported to Victorian London or the Deep South. Sometimes Donoghue's embrace of genre adds a fun zip – as in "The Long Way Home", about an ass-kicking female cowboy: "Name's Mollie Monroe ... going to ride behind me without a ruckus?" But in others, the chatty first-person present-tense narration grates, or her descriptions cloy.
Astray is a neatly composed collection, with a solid overarching structure that is practically the creative writing cliché of "beginnings, middles and ends" writ large. Bookending each story with a nugget of historical truth succeeds in driving on the curious reader, and it's like a series of satisfyingly tasty little snacks, even if the collection never quite adds up to anything seriously substantial.
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