Friday, March 22, 2013


Astray by Emma Donoghue
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2012.
275 p.

Just finished this collection of short stories, which I loved for many reasons. One, look at the cover. What a colour! And what a neat idea, silhouettes made of maps...very suited to the stories inside, and also giving me ideas!

But more seriously, this book was a fabulous collection. It is a set of stories written over a long period of time which all touch on the same kind of fascination with history and the stories of marginal characters who are in the process of change, of movement of some kind. Donoghue is clearly interested in the hidden, or overlooked, in the historical record.

After each story, she talks a little about the historical event or brief mention that inspired her leap into fiction (in this respect, it reminded me a little of Penelope Lively's Making Things Up). I really liked that, and found the faint spark of a beginning quite intriguing. Of course, in university I did a literature and history degree, so have always been somewhat interested in these kinds of intersections.

However, Donoghue's writing itself is so wonderful that I would have loved this even without the direct historical links. The collection is broken up into three sections, Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals & Aftermaths. Each has four or five stories, which range in topic from the first tale, "Man and Boy", about Jumbo the elephant and his keeper in 1882 London, to the final story, "What Remains", about artists Florence Wyle and Frances Loring, in 1967 Newmarket, Ontario.

There is always change, immigration, or movement (whether geographically or temporally) involved in each story. The strange question of how people end up where they do (a preoccupation of mine) is explored from many different angles, as Donoghue takes characters who are men, women, or sometimes of indeterminate gender, and sets them in mostly North American historical moments, and then imagines what might have happened in that meeting.

I enjoyed the variety of the stories, even while they all held the connecting thread of reimagined history, and a consistency in authorial voice. There were only two that I found a little less interesting, or perhaps more disturbing, and now that I think of it, those two were set in Revolutionary era America, not my favourite setting, so that could have affected my reading. Overall, I thought this was a strong collection that was also very accessible and one that I sped through. It's the first of her books that I've read (I know, I know, I have most of her titles but haven't read any others yet) so I was impressed with how it quickly caught me, and how much I enjoyed it.


  1. This collection sounds fascinating! I tend to avoid short stories because I'm always so disappointed when they end, but I should just stop feeling that way about it. I also think it's a beautiful cover.

  2. Misfortune - I do find short stories to be less than easy to read at times; I'm trying to read more and accustom myself to changing between my expectations for stories and novels. This one was a great choice -- glimpses into another life, and they felt complete in themselves.

  3. I'm so excited by this! Donoghue's other historical fiction novels are also based on little bits of history that she takes and then weaves into a story.

  4. I did not even know about this book. I'd like to add it to my TBR. Thanks for the post.

  5. This really does sound like a fabulous collection; I like the basic premise of Astray (or the underlying theme--the idea of meandering instead of always taking a straight and solid path). Wonderful review, Mel.

  6. I loved Room, but that's all I've read by Donahue. I received this collection to review, and I should unearth it because I so agree with you: her writing is gorgeous. And, short stories are just the ticket for my current short attention span.

  7. I heard her read a story about Wyle and Loring some years ago; I wonder if the one included here is another work about them...they would certainly inspire some great stories! Glad you enjoyed this one so much; I have it on my TBR, but don`t have a copy of it yet (and haven`t yet read her last collection either *hangs head*).

  8. I tried a couple of her earlier books after 'Room' and didn't get anywhere but I do like her writing and so perhaps I should combine my decision to read more (any) short stories with my desire to read more Donoghue and try this. Thanks for bringing this to my notice.

  9. Hmm, I enjoyed Penelope Lively's book too, so maybe this should go on my list.

  10. Aarti - I didn't realize that was her thing. Or I may have read something sooner!

    Mystica - glad it sounds appealing :)

    Suko - thanks, and it was very much a meander into possible lives...

    Bellezza - yes, the writing is lovely. I was turned off her by the idea of Room, actually, so I'm glad I discovered her this way.

    BIP - I would think the same; about them at the ends of their lives?? The only other fiction I've ever read about them was in picture book format, long ago.

    Alex - with short stories I often pick and choose and don't read the whole collection. I did read all of this one, though. Maybe it'll catch you.

    Shonna - definitely a different feel to this one, not the whimsy of Lively, but still that interesting conceit of possible lives...

  11. I used to not read many short stories but have found myself attracted to them more and more the longer I have a blog. This one is definitely on my to read stack!

  12. Stacy - why is that? Is it just because you're seeing more, or is there something about the blogging form that makes short stories more interesting to you? I have definitely been reading more myself since starting to blog seven yrs ago

    John - it is great, isn't it. Lovely!


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