Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Astray

by Emma Donoghue

Following her 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award–winning novel, Room, Emma Donoghue’s new story collection is an exploration of what it means to be the Other. Portrayed with uncanny insight and compassion, the characters who people these stories are all in some way out of place or out of their depth.

The collection is broken down into three thematically resonant sections: “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths.” “Last Supper at Brown’s,” from the first section, plays on several forms of departure: from locale, from ethical practice, from way of life, and from convention. A slave and his mistress each uses the murder of the man of the house as a means of escape – he from slavery, she from a loveless marriage.

In “The Body Swap,” a well-paced narrative and convincing vernacular (“I say Boyd’s bad notes are just as good. Who am I robbing, tell me, if I buy a horse with a queer bill?”) clearly demonstrate Donoghue’s flair and versatility.

The second section, “In Transit,” contains stories of journeys, both literal and figurative. In the epistolary story “The Gift,” Donoghue recreates the experience of mass orphan migration from the Eastern U.S. to the Midwest, and portrays a mother’s love as she tries, over 20 years, to retrieve her daughter from the parents who adopted her. 

While each part of the book attests to Donoghue’s consummate storytelling, “Arrivals and Aftermaths” contains perhaps the most extraordinary examples, including “What Remains,” an exquisite reimagining of the close relationship between Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, two 20th-century sculptors who moved from the U.S. to Toronto. The story focuses on the carving of the “Loring Lion,” an art deco sculpture that now resides in Sir Casimir Gzowski Park near Lake Ontario.

Spanning three centuries and two continents, the stories in Astray are marvellously diverse. Donoghue gives each tale its own lexicon, and includes subtle but revelatory political and historical details that help situate us in time and place. More importantly, she offers readers a group of well-crafted, memorable voices.