Astray by Emma Donoghue
Astray. Many of us have felt it. That pale, elusive notion of both displacement and discovery, that forced reassessment of our identity now that we find ourselves on unfamiliar ground.
Yet this place of unease and wonder also holds new freedom and independence. It is the joy of stepping off a plane and wondering if this new destination we have landed upon might become home.
In her new collection of short stories, Emma Donoghue (the Man Booker-shortlisted author of the acclaimed Room) brings us a gathering of travellers, vagrants, drifters and emigrants; they have all gone astray, crossing the borders of countries, law, race, sex and sanity simply to survive. Gold miners, attorneys, prostitutes and counterfeiters all traverse the pages of this book.
Some are made welcome in their various milieu but others remain inextricably on the outskirts, peering into other worlds that they can only imagine settling in. From New York in 1735 to Toronto in 1967 and Louisiana in 1839, as well as many other destinations stretching across America and the Atlantic, these restless characters often appear more like creatures of an epoch rather than as individuals.
Each of Donoghue’s pieces come, to varying degrees, from historical records, which she briefly reveals at the end of each story. This parallel of fiction and non-fiction has a strange effect. On one hand, it alludes to how some bygone notation can ignite the imagination, while, on the other, it gives a context to those details, somehow suggesting an even greater personal fate for the protagonist.
Donoghue once again shows her talent for re-creating the voices of her characters, and in Astray, she also demonstrates a keen eye for reading and interpreting historical documents. These are compelling stories, for restless times.
Nicole Mansour is the Assistant Manager of Readings St Kilda.