Since her first novel in 1994, Emma Donoghue has taken her readers through centuries and back and forth across the Atlantic, from a tender coming-of-age (and coming-out) story in 1970s Ireland (Stir-Fry), to a love triangle among an elite group of artists and writers in 18th-century London (Life Mask), to the powerful story of a young child and his mother whose whole world is a single room (Room). Her wide-ranging imagination continues its peregrinations in Astray, a collection of 14 stories peopled by runaway slaves, emigrants, counterfeiters and animal trainers who have wandered far from home. With its varied characters, time periods and settings, this collection is sure to please old fans who appreciate Donoghue’s historical writing, while demonstrating the breadth of her abilities to new readers who may have found her through the best-selling Room.
The stories work best when the characters cross more than just a geographic boundary. The woman who gives her daughter up for adoption in “The Gift” never stops writing to the New York Children’s Aid Society, demanding her return, even as the girl grows to adulthood, marries and moves out of state. “The Lost Seed” describes a Puritan troublemaker, whose accusations of his neighbors’ sexual indecencies gradually focus inward in a paroxysm of guilt.
Some plot points are difficult to believe, such as the slave and the owner’s wife who conspire to run away together in “Last Supper at Brown’s,” set in Civil War-era Texas. Yet each story is followed by a brief endnote describing its base in historical sources. Donoghue, who has a degree in 18th-century literature from Cambridge and further honed her research skills through years of writing historical fiction, has a gift for picking out the salient detail in newspaper clippings, documents and original correspondence, and transforming these archival scraps into fully fleshed-out tales.
Donoghue has also included a short essay on her own experiences as an immigrant twice over, first leaving Ireland for England as a student and then moving to Canada, where she now lives with her family. Perhaps her experiences created the empathy and insight found in two of the finer stories in this collection. “Counting the Days” is drawn from correspondence between an Irish married couple during the Potato Famine. “Onward,” set in Dickensian London and based on an anecdote from Dickens’ own life, concerns a poverty-stricken pair of siblings weighing their options between staying in London and emigrating. Despite their brevity, these stories go deep into the psychological experience of leaving home and what is lost and gained in the process.