Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel ROOM is one of the more devastating works of fiction of the past 10 years. The deceptively simple story of a modern-day woman raising her five-year-old son while never leaving an 11-by-11 room builds quiet power not only because of its unique premise but also because of Donoghue’s talent for giving out just enough detail to create suspense. It’s a brilliant performance.
Her follow-up book, ASTRAY, is similar to its predecessor only in its focus on characters who live on the periphery of society. The 14 stories in ASTRAY are mini-works of historical fiction, tales that occur in cities throughout England, Canada and the United States. From “The Lost Seed,” a tale set on Cape Cod in 1639, to “What Remains,” a portrait of a lesbian couple in old age set in Ontario in 1968, the stories collected here are about people like the protagonists in ROOM --- outsiders who are detached from their surroundings.
"ASTRAY is an assemblage of beautiful prose and fascinating premises, an experimental combination of fiction and history."
Donoghue uses actual events as the inspiration for each of these pieces. At the end of each story, she describes the sources on which she based her narrative. “Man and Boy” is the tale of Matthew Scott, the man who from 1851 to 1882 was the keeper of Jumbo the elephant at the London Zoological Society. When Scott learns that P.T. Barnum has purchased Jumbo and wants to bring the animal to America, Scott has to coax Jumbo out of his sit-down strike while at the same time hiding his own sadness over his friend’s distress. Donoghue tells us that she based her story on reports from the Times of London and on two books, WILD ANIMALS IN CAPTIVITY (1898) and AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MATTHEW SCOTT, JUMBO’S KEEPER (1885). She then fills in details that her story leaves out, such as Scott’s success at finally getting Jumbo into a crate and their four years together as part of Barnum’s troupe.
This is the pattern throughout the book: a snippet of history followed by an explanatory note. One of its virtues is the range of stories Donoghue tells. “Onward” is about a 33-year-old woman named Caroline who sees gentlemen “visitors” at her home to help support her brother and toddler daughter. Her brother writes to “a distinguished gentleman” who takes an interest in helping people in such dire financial circumstances. Only in the author’s note do we learn that this man was Charles Dickens, and that he paid to send Caroline to Canada to start a better life.
In “Last Supper at Brown’s,” set in Texas in 1864, a slave learns that his master plans to exchange him for calves. The master’s wife, who hates her husband, suggests poisoning his dinner and running off with the slave. “The Body Swap” is a fictionalized account of the attempted theft of Lincoln’s body from his tomb in Illinois’s Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1876. And “The Long Way Home” is about Mollie Molloy, a woman who dresses as a man and is hired to return a drunken Arizona prospector to the pregnant wife he has abandoned.
Donoghue is one of the more lyrical authors writing today. The most satisfying aspects of ROOM were her empathy for her characters and her ability to dig deep into each character’s personality and make us feel their internal struggles. All of these new stories feature her lyrical prose. The best of them, including “Veritas,” in which a young woman becomes obsessed with the circumstances behind the death of a cousin, and the aforementioned “What Remains,” in which an elderly sculptor copes with the mental decline of her longtime partner, are nuanced explorations of heartbreak and loss.
Many of the stories in ASTRAY feel thin, however. All too often, Donoghue sets up a premise and then abandons the story when the tension is about to mount. One could argue that the drama in the real-life tale of “Man and Boy” lies not in the attempt to get Jumbo onto the ship bound for America but the circumstances that befall him and Scott after they leave England. Donoghue stops the story as soon as Jumbo is in his crate. She does the same throughout, giving us sketches rather than fleshed-out narratives. But it’s clear that Donoghue is playing with the genre of historical fiction, which she has already mastered in books such as SLAMMERKIN. ASTRAY is an assemblage of beautiful prose and fascinating premises, an experimental combination of fiction and history.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on November 1, 2012