“I love the oddity of historical incidence, the ethical muddiness,” Emma Donoghue (of Room fame) has said, and it’s oddity and muddiness she digs into in her latest book, Astray, a collection of 14 stories set in places as various as London, the Yukon, and Louisiana, in years ranging from 1639 to 1967.
There’s a keeper’s persistent chatter to his elephant Jumbo in “Man and Boy,” and the voice of Nigger Brown as the slave conspires to murder his master and run off with his wife in “Last Supper at Brown’s.” There’s a series of letters to the New York Children’s Aid Society by the birth mother and adoptive father of Lily May with their competing claims upon the child (“an epistolary duet,” Donoghue calls it) in “The Gift.” In “Daddy’s Girl,” a young woman has just discovered, upon his death, that her father was actually female.
The stories are small set pieces, briskly told, and interesting. They are seen more than felt in the reading, it seemed to me — only to be felt later in thinking upon them. Part of their appeal was the tug forward to the end of each story where Donoghue provides a brief explanation for its origin, the “truth,” that is, behind the story’s truth. Sometimes she worked it out of little more than a throwaway line, at other times it emerged from newspaper clippings or other documentation.
This was one of those occasional experiences with books where I’m very conscious of reading at two levels. On the one I’m apprehending the story, on the other I’m watching what the author’s doing. Why this way of telling it, and how is this effect being created? It annoys me a little when this happens. I wish I could just enjoy the product, never mind thinking back into the process. But maybe I need to simply consider it double the intrigue, double the pleasure.
And there was more: a lovely surprise at the end, an Afterword in which Donoghue reflects on the stories in the collection and their themes of displacement, “border crossings” of various kinds, migration. These are themes that interest me a great deal as well, what with the history of my people group (Mennonites) so loaded with movement and a sense of contingency (even when described in the religious language of larger purpose). I was particularly struck by the statement, “Migration is mortality by another name, the itch we can’t scratch.” Because of the arbitrariness it reveals, she means, “this contingent selfhood, this sole life.”