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.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
- 2 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 3 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
- 4 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
- 5 Michael Buerk wishes he'd killed Jimmy Savile when he had the chance - by pushing him overboard a cruise ship
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
This house and dental clinic 'piled up like bricks on the brink of collapsing' is why Japan wins at architecture
Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
James Cameron hypes up Avatar sequels: 'You will s**t yourself with your mouth wide open'
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'
Ed Miliband's 'north London set' must be demolished to save Labour, say critics
Green Party Caroline Lucas interview: 'We could be on the edge of something very big'