Wandering in the New World
FICTION: Astray,By Emma Donoghue, Picador, 274pp. £14.99
EMMA DONOGHUE’S reputation as a versatile and prolific writer was already well established when the success of her novel Room (2010) catapulted her to a very different level of fame. Her new play, Talk of the Town, based on the brilliant New Yorker career of the Irish writer Maeve Brennan, is on stage now at Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Donoghue has long been comfortable working in a variety of genres, and although much of her writing has been labelled gay fiction, that tag distorts the scope of her achievement.
There is considerable pressure from the publishing industry for successful prose writers to produce novels, which sell, rather than short stories, which don’t. At least that is the perception. All the more impressive, then, the number of Irish authors, now including Donoghue, who have recently overcome this shibboleth and followed a prize-worthy novel with a collection of stories. Astray is such a volume, and one that is rather swashbuckling.
It travels through centuries, crossing the Atlantic and hopscotching the US-Canadian border. Although most of the stories take place in the New World, it is not Donoghue’s aim to worry cultural distinctions between the latter two countries (as is Richard Ford’s in his recent novel, Canada). Instead she retells curious incidents about displaced people from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Most of these tales are gleaned from 19th-century newspaper reports and letters, the period of peak emigration to North America from Europe. Donoghue, herself an emigre long resident in Canada, has described these as “true fictions” rather than the more common “historical” fiction or even “docufiction”.
In an “Afterwards” the author offers an apologia, explaining that she was inspired by the many applications of the single word that forms her title. She makes use of the usual sense of straying, but also includes connotations of both moral failure and insanity that commonly attach to the word astray. The English word may have a Celtic origin, and is common in Hiberno-English speech – Seamus Heaney chose it as the descriptor for his Sweeney, rather than the alternative “mad”.
Like Sweeney, all Donoghue’s characters are wanderers, emigrants cut adrift or cursed in a sense. Their exile may be voluntary or imposed. They take to prostitution, violence and theft. Culturally out of sync, they are at times lonely, desperate or merely suspect. The resultant alienation makes them apt subjects for the short story. These are the marginal lives Frank O’Connor described in The Lonely Voice. What sets Donoghue’s tales apart, though, is her curiosity about the variety of sexual behaviour that such isolation and disruption can foster or permit to flourish.
Two of the stories, The Long Way Home and Daddy’s Girl, feature cross-dressing women. In the first, the historical Molly Monroe was a cowgirl who came to a mad end. She was known to be female, and was persecuted for dressing and acting as a man. Molly enjoyed the male pursuits of drinking and card-playing, but as a woman she wasn’t averse to having a man in her bed. Daddy’s Girl is written from the perspective of Imelda Hall, daughter of the prominent Manhattan businessman Murray Hall. She is left to fathom the riddle of her father’s hidden life, as he was revealed in death to have been a woman.