Astray is a collection of 14 stories by Emma Donoghue the Irish-born author and historian who is probably most famous for her internationally-acclaimed novel, The Room, which unfolds through the voice of a five-year-old boy whose only world has been the room where he and his mother are kept prisoner.
The Room was inspired by the case of the Austrian Joseph Fritzel who fathered seven children from his own daughter, and Donoghue has also utilised what she called “hybrid faction” in other successful work including The Sealed Letter.
Astray is inspired by, and loosely based on, archival records of real events and people, dating back to the early 1660s, although the intimate detail that makes this such a rich collection is Donaghue’s. She provides the voice behind the yellowing newspaper cutting or entry in a dusty register of births and deaths.
All of the characters, a motley collection of the desperate, the hopeful, the downtrodden and the distinctly odd, have gone astray in some way: a physical separation, a dark secret, emotional chasm, moral collapse, thwarted aspiration.
Emigration, with its heady promise of a new life and success yet balanced so precariously by deprivation and failure, is the primary theme inspired by Donoghue’s own dislocated existence as she moved from her home in Dublin first to London then to Canada where she still lives. “Why is this home . . .” she asks herself as she lands in Canada. “I’ve gone astray, stepped off some invisible track that I was born to follow. How did I get here?” But there is also a powerful ribbon of self-delusion, subterfuge and deception woven through the stories.
The settings are as diverse as the tales, a Creole mansion in Louisiana, London Zoo, a steamer on the wild Gulf of St Lawrence, frozen winter wastes of Cape Cod, an old people’s home in 1960s Ontario.
Probably the most shocking story is The Hunt, set in the military outlaw days of the American Revolution where a young German-born soldier, seeking only to return to his native country, eventually perpetrates a shocking betrayal.
A far more sustained, but less consequential, duplicity is revealed in Daddy’s Girl, set in 1901 New York, where a dutiful daughter makes an extraordinary discovery after the death of her wealthy businessman father.
None of the stories in Astray is particularly long. One of the most intriguing, Last Supper at Brown’s, where a slave and the master’s wife join forces to escape his brutalityin desperation, is just six pages but loses nothing for that.
The book has been divided into three sections of the process of going astray, Departures, In Transit and Arrivals, and Aftermaths, although each of the individual stories would happily sit in any order and lose none of its power.
After each story, Donoghue outlines the bare “facts” which she used as the narrative’s skeleton, newspapers, books, official records, plays and even songs. The Widow’s Cruse, for example, was based on a single line from a newspaper, yet was built into a wonderful intricate narrative where a seemingly vulnerable widow is able to outwit the legal world to pull-off a huge fraud . These are a fascinating addition.
Astray was 15 years in the making and some of the short stories (like The Hunt) have been published as stand-alones. In the afterword, Donoghue some insight not just into the “hybrid form of historical fiction” where crucial facts are “joyfully uncovered” in dusty archives and online databases then combined with “great leaps of insight and imagination.”
If Astray is anything to go by, 2013 bodes very well for great reading.