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- Little, Brown and Company, 288 pp.
Ruptures and Unravelings
Emma Donoghue made a huge splash in the world of mainstream literary fiction with the publication of her 2010 novel Room. While this novel is both complex and hauntingly subtle, its major accomplishment is the seamless representation of a challenging first person protagonist. Room set a high bar for the author’s newest work, a collection of fourteen vignettes dealing broadly with the theme indicated by the title: Astray. In this new book, Donoghue works beautifully in the tenuous vein of historical fiction, documenting and imagining stories of lives gone awry. “Migration is mortality by another name,” the author muses in the book’s Afterword. Put another way, living is an act of migration, of growing and changing, becoming unraveled—going astray. The historical thread of archival validity that Donoghue pins to the end of the vignettes grants them a sense of immediacy and anchors them to everyday life in a way distinct to the hybrid genre of historical fiction. With meta-fictional self-consciousness, Donoghue’s characters dwell on ways to frame their own experiences—pasts, presents, and futures. They struggle, along with the reader, to discern malicious lies from polite fictions and familiar lore from historical fact.
As in Room, Donoghue again reveals a gift for inhabiting and representing an impressive array of characters that crosses both centuries and oceans—occasionally amidships. With versatility and empathy, the author tells the stories of a 19th century British prostitute, a wealthy daughter of a creole plantation owner in slave-owning Louisiana, and an 85 year-old lesbian sculptor living in modern Canada, among others. And even when she isn’t explicitly narrating events from a singular point of view, Donoghue is clearly engaged in the kind of nuanced language play that creates a sense of character and time seemingly out of thin air. Though we might point to the richness of her source material as the origin point of each of these stories, Donoghue’s inspired and immersive grasp on various experiences and identities transcends the borders of nations, the span of decades or centuries, and what we come to see as the perilously thin line between fact and fiction.
In the Afterword, Donoghue contemplates the way she has been shaped by her own experiences as an immigrant: “If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you’re far from home?” Beginning with the idea of home as a center of an individual’s moral and ethical gravity, Donoghue follows her characters out into the world beyond it. We discover these characters on the brink of some personal discovery, adventure, or tragedy and follow them to their point of departure. A trainer and his beloved elephant, the world famous Jumbo, manage to stay together even through the vicissitudes of the latter’s chattel status. A callused cowhand in the American Old West tries her hand at roping a wayward husband. A god-terrorized Puritan points the finger of accusation at his neighbors before realizing that the evil shadow cast across their virtues is none other than his own.
In a sense, the structure of Donoghue’s vignettes tracks clearly with the tradition of western narratives:
A stranger comes to town. That’s one of the most reliable of plot motifs, and for a very practical reason: it’s hard to describe a town if it’s already banal to its inhabitants. The writer needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course, put another way, what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger.
At the beginning of the story, we enter a place or meet a character marked by relative stability if not frustrated stasis. Then, a stranger comes to town. In the face of this foreign element, the strangeness of home is thrown into sharp relief. What the stranger—the eruption, the foreign element—reveals is not only his or her own strangeness, but the strangeness of what was formerly taken for granted. We marvel, in these vignettes, not just at the disrupting presence and what it represents, but at the places and characters who are thus disrupted. Only when we are jolted out of our comfort zone do we see that zone, and ourselves, in a new light.
For example, in the story “Counting the Days,” the author seamlessly weaves together the story of a husband and wife, Henry and Jane, parted by a narrowing gap of ocean. Donoghue tells the story from both sides, flavoring the account with smatterings of letters they have written to each other during their separation. Their love for each other, resentment at their parting, desperation at the hardships they face, and fears for the future saturate the sparest of glimpses we get at their private correspondence. The haunting story, conveyed with such delicacy and attention to narrative and linguistic detail, is a testament to Donoghue’s brilliance with concision. As the wife nears her destination, the husband closes on another, and the end is something neither of them predicted. The wilderness into which the couple enters—both separately and, through the permeable narrative, together—throws into relief the strangeness of the man and woman. In their private contemplations, and in their frequent correspondence, Henry and Jane parse each other’s words and their own actions in an attempt to discern the terrifying truth from the protective lie. Though of one flesh, so to speak, they are strangers.
Though some stories in Astray are more poignant than others, Donoghue once again shows herself to be a writer who excels at evoking characters with startling precision. The result is an exceptional collection that meditates widely on the way in which even the most stable-seeming lives can quickly unravel, revealing the contingent nature of the idea of stability itself. Just as the stranger renders newly visible the strangeness of home, the revelations of fiction re-cast fact in an oddly unbelievable light. Taken together, the stories in Astray emphasize the primacy of the journey, the unraveling, and the unfamiliar. By wrapping each story around these moments of rupture, Donoghue captures the sense in which we are all immigrants, strangers to ourselves and those around us, making our way.