Astray, by Emma Donoghue

The biggest downside to writing one of the most profound and devastating novels of the past ten years is that you set up expectations for your follow-up that are impossible to meet. Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room generates enormous power from its simple premise. Jack, a five-year-old boy, has lived with his young mother in an 11-by-11 room for his entire life. He has never been anywhere but that room. His mother still breast-feeds him. He has never met anyone other than his mother, except for a mysterious man named Old Nick who drops by to bring them food. Sometimes, the man stays for a while. On those occasions, Jack sleeps not with his mother in their bed but in a wardrobe. Old Nick takes his place in the bed.

By gradually filling in details, Donoghue shows us the circumstances by which Jack and his mother came to live in this room, Old Nick’s significance in their lives, and Jack’s mother’s efforts to free herself and her son from their captivity. The novel is as much a meditation on the cruelties of the outside world as it is a thriller. One of the questions Donoghue poses is whether Jack and his mother might have been better off remaining sequestered from reality rather than attempting to re-integrate into society. Room could have been mawkish, but thanks to Donoghue’s thoughtfulness and lyrical prose, the book is instead wise and quietly shattering. It’s a brilliant work.

It’s also a departure from the historical fiction she had written prior to the novel’s release. With her new work of fiction, Astray, Donoghue returns to the genre she mastered in works such as Slammerkin. Astray is a collection of fourteen stories, each one chronicling a moment in the life of someone who considers himself or herself an outsider. The earliest piece, “The Lost Seed,” is set on cape Cod in 1639. The latest, “What Remains,” a beautiful story about a lesbian couple, both sculptors, one of whom is slowly being lost to dementia, takes place in Newmarket, Ontario, in 1968. At the end of each story, Donoghue includes a page of historical background, in which she tells us the inspiration for each story. After “Onward,” the tale of a young mother who sees gentleman “visitors” to help make the money to care for her child and adult brother, Donoghue tells us that the woman was Caroline Thompson, the inspiration for Amy Dorrit, and that Charles Dickens, after receiving a letter from Caroline’s brother Frederick, took an interest in her story and paid for her to move to Canada from England to begin a new life.

Many of the pieces in Astray are wonderful, especially “Veritas,” in which a 16-year-old woman’s fascination with a deceased cousin increases when she is told that her aunt and uncle killed her. Others are weaker, however, and feel sketchy rather than fully developed. None, alas, is as memorable as Room, but how could they have been? Astray is a collection of oddities about historical oddities, a fascinating experiment distinguished by Donoghue’s moving prose.

A full review of Astray will appear on later this week.


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