London, ON-based Irish writer Emma Donoghue’s Astray is nothing if not a diverse collection of short stories. Although each story is historical and has some kind of fact such as letters or newspaper articles that serve as a catalyst for Donoghue’s imagination, the times, places, and contexts are about as far-reaching as you could imagine. One, for example, takes place in the seventeenth century Puritan America, whereas another is set in rural Ontario in 1967. I love the idea of taking brief mentions of eccentric characters in documents of the past and fleshing out and imagining their lives. In particular, Donoghue focuses, as the book’s title suggests, on characters who are on the move and out of place. However, what happened as I read through this assortment of stories is that I discovered I often liked the concept of what Donoghue was doing more than the execution—in other words, the stories themselves.
Some of them felt like they needed more room to expand and that the material available might have lent itself more readily to forms longer than the short story. For example, a story featuring the murder of a slave owner orchestrated by his wife and one of his slaves is only a mere six pages long! Others felt limited or hindered by the scope of the documental evidence; a few times I felt a story that had ‘simply’ used imagination would have been more appealing. Also, some of these stories just didn’t interest me because they were about men. I told my friend this (thanks for the insight Erica!) and she joked that I really am a separatist. I admit that I don’t really care that much about most cisgendered men’s stories and would rather read about women. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Donoghue writing about men if she wants to, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with only really wanting to read about women. So there’s that.
That said, there were a few standout stories that would cause me to recommend this book. “The Widow’s Curse,” which features an eighteenth century woman working the gender stereotype of the weak, helpless female in order to scam a few men out of a lot of money, is really a fascinating story with a great narrative twist. (Hmm, given that this was one of my favourite stories maybe I am a separatist…). “The Gift” is a moving epistolary story that features letters written in the late 1800s by an impoverished birth mother and her child’s adoptive parents. The letters form a heartbreaking conversation, even though the writers address the adoption agency and not each other; the mother begs to be able to have her daughter back given her new financial circumstances and the parents argue that the child they love and have spent years raising is now their daughter.
“Vanitas,” one the longer stories in the book, really exhibits Donoghue’s talent for embodying the viewpoints of different characters and times. The voice of a vivacious fifteen-year-old girl of French background living on a plantation in Louisiana in 1839 is powerfully drawn. Donoghue brilliantly captures that unique blend of child and adult perspectives that teenagers exemplify. The brutally racist environment that is the norm for this young woman—her mother speaks lightly of ‘breeding’ their slaves and not needing to buy any—is shocking in its casual nature. The girl’s offhand mention of her inevitable arranged marriage, likely to someone twice her age, is also awful. The story is really an exceptional, unconventional look at race, gender, and class in a time that in the end appears to be not quite so foreign to our contemporary world as you might think.
Donoghue saves two of the queerest stories for last: “Daddy’s Girl” and “What Remains.” I almost hesitate to talk about “Daddy’s Girl” because I wouldn’t want to spoil the twist of the story, so if you prefer no spoilers, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. In fact, what’s brilliant about the story is how Donoghue slowly and subtly reveals that the gender identity of the famous father in question (who died in 1901) is not as straight-forward as you might assume. His daughter’s voice, investigating her trans father’s history and trying to piece together his history, is remarkable; she tells us at the end of the story: “He is still my daddy. Even if he is dead. And a woman. Doctor Gallagher says ‘she,’ now, when he remembers, and so do reporters. But I won’t, not ever. Daddy wouldn’t like it.”
“What Remains” is a bittersweet romance that is set in a nursing home but told mostly through one woman’s memories. Her partner is Frances, affectionately called “Queenie” by Florence, whom she no longer recognizes. Both extraordinary women in their own rights, each had been a sculptor in her younger days, but neither their artistic accomplishments nor their relationship are acknowledged or appreciated in their old age. It’s a lovely, but sad story. If you’re familiar with Toronto, you might know a sculpture of a lion that sits in Sir Casimir Gzowski Park on Lakeshore Boulevard West; this is the ‘real life’ Frances’s greatest achievement.
I loved loved loved Donoghue’s novel Landing, which is a smart, funny, and sharp contemporary lesbian romance; Astray is a very different book, not so much because it’s a collection of short stories but because it’s a book focused on historical narratives that, for the most part, feature a non-queer kind of extraordinariness. Nevertheless, Astray remains devoted to a focus on otherness and migration that should resonate with many an LGBTQ reader.