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Book review: Astray by Emma Donoghue

  • by ALLAN MASSIE
 

COLLECTIONS of short stories are often rag-bags, given unity only by the writer’s tone of voice. This isn’t surprising. The stories may have been written over a period of years, published in magazines, and then gathered together when there are enough of them to make a book.

Astray

by Emma Donoghue

Picador, 274pp, £14.99

On the face of it this is the case with the stories in this book. A couple were first published as long ago as 1998, others at intervals since then. Yet, for two reasons, the collection hangs together.

First, all the stories are based on real-life events, recorded, sometimes very briefly, in newspapers, letters, court records, and other books. Donoghue identifies her source in a brief end-note to each story.

Second, all the stories are about migrants, people who stray, mostly geographically, sometimes in terms of behaviour. As she writes in an afterword: “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 place, out of their depth.”

They are people adjusting themselves to new places, new people, new experiences, or, often, failing to make that adjustment satisfactorily. The epigraph, lines from Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid, is well chosen: “Tell us underneath what skies,/ Upon what coasts of earth we have been cast;/ We wander, ignorant of men and places,/And driven by the wind and the vast waves.”

Donoghue herself is Irish, educated partly in England, now living in Canada, As she says, migration has been the common experience of the Irish, If they don’t leave Ireland themselves, their parents, siblings, children or cousins will have done so.

The first two stories are set in London. The emigrant in “Man and Boy” is the zoo’s famous elephant, Jumbo, bought by the showman Barnum for his circus. Jumbo, reared from infancy by his keeper Scott, is the boy, Scott the man, and Jumbo refuses to enter the crate in which he is to be hoisted onto the boat, till Scott suggests that he should go with him. It is a tender and comic story, not much like some of the grimmer ones that follow.

In the second story, a young London prostitute, a single mother, who has also brought up a young brother, is rescued when the brother writes to a famous author – Dickens, of course – asking for financial help to enable them to start again in the New World.

“The Widow’s Cruse” is another agreeably comic story – the hoodwinking of a complacent young lawyer in 18th-century New York. In Texas during the Civil War, an unhappy wife conspires with a black household slave to escape from the man who governs both of them, the story being told from the slaves ‘ point of view.

“The Long Way Home” tells of a journey made by a strong individualist, hard-drinking woman to reunite a prospector with his pregnant wife. The prospector thinks her crazy, though she seems sane enough. In reality she became in 1877 the first woman in Arizona to be committed to an institution for the insane, which, Donoghue drily adds, ”probably translates as cross-dressing, promiscuity and alcoholism”.

“The Lost Seed”, set in Cape Cod in 1639, is written in the voice of an obsessive who accused his fellow-settlers of an array of sex-crimes; it is a nice study in pathological behaviour. “Daddy’s Girl” offers the thoughts of a young woman who has just discovered that her “father”, a Tammany Hall fixer for the Democratic Party, was a woman who had lived all her adult life as a man – an extreme form of migration.

Donoghue writes with sympathy and authority; she offers a generous understanding of the oddity and frequent deviancy of human behaviour. The tone of voice is cool and assured. She refrains from passing judgment. As Daddy’s Girl puts it: “I did not know before today that you can hate and despise a person and still love him on the other side of all that.”

The best and most terrible of the stories is “Vanitas”, told by a 15-year-old Creole girl living on the family plantation in Louisiana in 1839. Vanitas, as her aunt, a recluse with a dreadful secret, tells her, has two meaning: the first is self-conceit, the second emptiness or worthlessness. Aimee, the narrator, learns in the course of a couple of days that the former can leads to horrors, and that the second meaning may be the consequence of the first.

There are a few blemishes in these stories, words sometimes being used out of time. But in general they are very well done, and the collection has a unity that is surprising, and displays a mastery of tone that is very pleasing; in short, an unusual and rewarding book.

 

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