From the wanderings of Odysseus to Sal Paradise’s open road, the idea of a fixed home has always been an intriguing focus of literature. The stories in Emma Donoghue’s new collection “Astray” also traffic in concerns with flight and longing. Donoghue moves between centuries and continents, creating characters full of yearning for a metaphorical home while plagued by the remembrance of a home they had to abandon. “When you change countries, perhaps your old self stays fixed to your back, like a turtle’s shell,” she writes in “Onward,” a story from the collection’s opening section. “Astray” presents the idea of a former home that is as necessary to leave as it is impossible to forget.
This is Donoghue’s first work since the 2010 release of her acclaimed novel, “Room,” which describes a mother’s effort to create a new world for a son who knows nothing but the room where his mother has been contained for the past seven years. What made “Room” so piercing was its lack of geographical or chronological scope, but with “Astray,” Donoghue has opted to go the opposite route. Her stories span four centuries and two continents. She covers territory that varies from the newly established Plymouth colony to grim 19th century London and uses historical accounts as launching points for her stories. Despite the broadness of settings, all of the stories in “Astray” are united in their portrayal of émigrés in the midst of a process of relocation. Donoghue has divided the collection into three neat sections, aptly titled “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” in order to convey her characters’ physical and emotional progression from original home to eventual destination. It’s a shame that a good half of the collection, like Donoghue’s doomed characters, never makes it past the departure point, resulting in a book that ranges from riveting intrigue to disconnected shlock.
It is not surprising that “Departures” is the collection’s strongest section. Here Donoghue’s portrayals of yearning and despair take center stage; the urgency present throughout “Departures” makes engrossing accounts of seemingly banal subjects, such as 18th-century legal proceedings in “The Widow’s Cruse.” The most innovative “Departures” story is its opener, “Man and Boy.” The entire story is composed of a one-sided dialogue between a man and an elephant, none other than Jumbo of Barnum’s Circus fame. Jumbo was acquired by Barnum after a life spent in England with his keeper, Matthew Scott, the man in this section. Although the story’s concept risks ridiculousness, Donoghue fills her account of Jumbo’s forced deportation with moments of tender poignancy, making Scott and Jumbo’s parting as tragic as a separation between lovers. As Scott tells Jumbo, “But the thing is, lad, you’re going to have to go sooner or later. You know that, don’t you?” Here, the simplicity of Donoghue’s writing conveys the sadness of the soon-to-be separated friends without veering into melodrama, making even interspecies friendship seem plausible.
Donoghue handles emotion quite well in more serious settings, as seen in “The Hunt,” an account of rape and pillage during the Revolutionary War. She follows a 15-year old German mercenary, known as “Half Bosch” because of his small stature, who in winter 1776 is stationed in New Jersey and tasked with finding provisions and women for the camp. When Half Bosch happens upon a young girl, he helps her avoid the eyes of the lecherous troops and promises to lead her to safety. When the men tease the boy about his manhood, however, he feels that he has no choice but to deliver the girl into the camp and have his way with her. Donoghue skillfully portrays the conflict between innocence and duty with sparse sentences that illustrate the horrors of what the children are about to endure. “And for a moment, as they set off across the meadow hand in hand like children, he lets himself believe that they are running away. That he is man enough to be a deserter.... But all the while he knows how it’s going to be. He will lead her into the barracks that must be already filling up with other girls...whose eyes will tell this girl all she needs to know.”
At their best, Donoghue’s imaginings are entrancing in their simplicity, but it is when she strays outside these bounds of subtlety that the unevenness of the collection becomes apparent. “The Long Way Home,” an account of a man’s forced return at the hands of a gruff female bounty hunter, ends up being hokey with dialogue that could have been snatched from the nearest pulp fiction on hand.
“Mollie keeps her grin on. ‘Do I look scairt?’
‘Crazy as popcorn on a stove, that’s what you look.’
‘Don’t push me, Jensen. I’d rather deliver you in one piece.’”
It is frankly a bit embarrassing to find dialogue this cheesy in the same collection as “Man and Boy” or “The Hunt,” stories that subtly deal with themes like friendship and rape. There, she evokes her characters’ struggles with a “less is more” attitude, and her sparse writing often succeeds in inciting an emotional response. Stories with overblown conversations and period details like “The Long Way Home,” however, undermine the simple, direct writing that remains Donoghue’s greatest talent.
Perhaps Donoghue is best able to capture feelings of homesickness and regret because of her own experience as a two-time émigré. When she strays too far from home, however, her stories lose their effectiveness. It is here that she veers into stereotypical representations and fails to reach the heights of her talent. As evinced in “Room” and the better parts of “Astray,” Donoghue is at her best when she describes the act of escape. It is only when her characters reach their destination that her writing begins to unravel.
—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at email@example.com.