Wandering in the New World
The best of Donoghue’s tales are those that work freeform rather than representing exact incidents. In Snowblind the author creates a pair of prospectors during the Yukon gold rush whose interdependency and intimacy grow through months of deprivation. Vanitas imagines the life of a young, pampered Creole girl, and is loosely imagined from Donoghue’s visit to Laura Plantation in Louisiana. Here and elsewhere, period detail, lists of accoutrements and exotic references provide the necessary backstory to the distant worlds displayed briefly for the reader. At times these are awkwardly included or inaccurate, making the reader too aware that the writer is building historical context. For example, in The Hunt, an American revolutionary tale, a young Hessian recruit tries to avoid participating in the systematic rape of women deemed disloyal to the English king, but his term for the colonists in revolt – “reb” – is American Civil War slang, not that of the revolutionary war nearly a century earlier.
Throughout these stories, however, the reader is confronted with the brutality of colonial and frontier American life as the newly arrived Europeans cope with the disease, harsh weather and indenture that awaited them in what they hoped would be the promised land.
Apart from the Afterwards, Astray contains an extensive apparatus. Donoghue appends a note to each story, identifying its factual source and, at times, providing a verbatim citation from the press reports of the day. She also notes the differences between the historical reality of the events or characters represented and her fictive version. Efforts such as these signal a weakness inherent in the undertaking. Historical fiction usually comes in large packages – not just novels but doorstoppers. There is a reason for this. The reader must be drawn into the re- created world of another era or culture, a process that takes time and skill to establish. (Donoghue’s Slammerkin, among other of her works, indicates her ability to develop such a world in fiction.) To build this atmosphere within the confines of a short story – and these are rather short short stories – is very tricky. Donoghue’s decision to reveal the mechanism immediately after the reader has read the tale is rather like a magician stopping after each trick to show us how it’s done.
Readers who discovered Donoghue’s work only with the appearance of the award-winning Room will be surprised and possibly disappointed by this volume. Others who have followed her career will find another of her brave forays into new genres and forms, which may attract an entirely new readership.
Christina Hunt Mahony teaches in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of Contemporary Irish Literature: Transforming Tradition (Macmillan) and editor of Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (Carysfort)