The characters in Emma Donoghue’s intriguing new story collection have crossed borders — gone astray, in her words, from the original direction of their lives — for a variety of reasons. Desire for better circumstances. A need for reinvention. Ambition. Fear. Greed. Love. And sometimes a complex combination of all of the above.
Author of such visceral novels as Room and Slammerkin, Donoghue is a migrant herself — she left Ireland for Canada, where she now lives with her family — and she brings her sense of the unsettling experience of being an outsider to the stories of Astray.
“Migrants are awkward,” she writes in an afterword. “Sometimes our self-consciousness can take the form of standoffishness. We want to be let in, yet keep our distance. We don’t want to lose our accent, nor be mocked for it. We nurse a grudge, either suspecting the new country of not welcoming us, or expecting it to compensate us for all we’ve given up to get here.”
Using old newspaper accounts of travels to and through the New World, Donoghue has scoured the past, and she has reshaped the stories she found there as fiction, mining bare facts and building flesh and blood around them. She gives heft and shape to a wide array of characters poised on the brink of monumental change or stumbling through the consequences of such a shift. We meet an elephant trainer at the London Zoological Society whose famous charge is destined for a new stage in America with P.T. Barnum; a slave in Texas who considers the unthinkable to gain a chance at freedom; a young Irish mother traveling to Canada who doesn’t know her husband won’t be at the docks to greet her because he is dying of cholera.
Donaghue divides the stories into three categories: “Departures,” “In Transit,” “Arrivals and Aftermaths.” That first step, the departure, is treacherous to navigate. The mere idea of starting over seems impossible. “The road never seemed to fork,” thinks Caroline, the lower-middle class prostitute in Onward, set in the London of 1854, who entertains gentlemen in between caring for her small daughter and brother. “She’s put one foot in front of another, and this is where they have led her. … Onward, onward, because backward is impossible. Fallen, like leaves that can’t be stuck back on the trees again.”
But accepting the opportunity to leave doesn’t guarantee an end to disenchantment. Accepting hard truths, Donoghue understands, is part of the journey. In Snowblind, two young prospectors are giddy over the idea of gold, until they spend a winter in a shack in the Yukon. In Daddy’s Girl, a young woman in 1901 New York has to accept a shocking truth about her father, a Tammany Hall bigwig whose past is something of a mystery. (“Daddy never said much about his life from before he crossed the ocean . … He once said there was nothing set his teeth on edge more than an emigrant sniveling for home.”)
In the collection’s most chilling story, The Hunt, a teenage mercenary from Germany fighting for the British in 1776 is ordered to participate in a campaign of rape in New Jersey. He wishes he was bold enough to desert. He knows he won’t. “He finds himself thinking of his mother’s softly creased hands, setting down a bowl of borscht before him. He shoves the memory away. His mother would not know him.”
Like her novel Room — about a little boy growing up in a tiny shed with his kidnapped mother — The Hunt displays vividly how gifted Donoghue is at unnerving us, at making us squirm. But she’s also comfortable with humor. In The Body Swap, she relates a hare-brained plan to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse from its grave. (“It’s nobody’s property once it’s stopped breathing,” one desperado notes.) But her primary goal is to move us, to make us consider the myriad journeys we take over the course of our lives.
In the wrenching What Remains, a once-noteworthy sculptor — she despises the term “sculptress” — watches her partner slide toward death in the Ontario nursing home where they live. Once known as the “Clay Ladies,” they worked on a sculpture of a lion to commemorate the visit of the king and queen to Canada in 1940, when patriotic fervor ran high. Upon completion of the gargantuan task, “[I]t occurred to me that I was a Canadian,” she thinks. “Not that in thirty years I’d ever got around to filling in the forms; on paper I was — as I am still — a U.S. citizen. But sometimes things about you change without you noticing.”
Change is inevitable for the migrant — and for us all. In Astray, Donoghue makes us tremble at the idea and revel in its possibilities.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.