Sheba Thayil explores Donoghue’s intriguing tales and finds them unforgettable.
What Donoghue’s done is filled in the colours of a black-and-white life read from an obit column... Born, Married with Children, Died on...which the rest of us would have skimmed through as though we were Ten-Second Toms suffering from short-term memory loss in the movie 50 First Dates. In the hands of someone less assured, Astray would have read like the obit of literary values, but Emma Donoghue is not less assured. She makes each foray into a stranger’s perspective the equivalent of what The Guardian asked noted authors to do recently: tell a story the Twitter way. Astray stays gloriously detailed and keeps us from reaching for the ADD medication.
These snapshots are pivotal moments in their protagonists’ lives, if not validations. They are unsentimental, (“The Hunt” is a shocking testament, where women raped during war is a revelation because it shows a young boy exactly who he is, and will never grow up to be), sometimes funny, often raw. You cannot read about a mother giving up her child because of poverty, or a Calamity Jane-esque woman hogtying a man to take him home to his lover and their children, or a “widow” cashing in on her husband’s disappearance, without being shaken and stirred. Donoghue’s Calamity was mined from the history of Mollie Sanger who worked as a “prospector, cowboy, cook and saloonkeeper”, and was the first woman in Arizona committed for insanity in 1877, which, the author beautifully states “probably translates as cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism”. Nothing to turn a hair about if we were talking about a man, of course.
All these tales are based on intriguing, true snippets from books and newspapers chronicling the 17 to 20 century immigrant/pioneer/war equation in America. “Last Supper at Brown’s” is culled from one sentence in the Tucson Star about a black man who killed his “Master” in Texas in 1864 and “throughout all his wanderings...was accompanied by his slain master's wife.” Any writer worth her imagination would have been caught by that one.
The stories are divided into those beginning their journeys, those caught in the throes of discovery, and those who now reap what they sow. Not one of these tales is forgettable, although “Body Swap” and “Onward” don’t have the power of saying something old in a new way; the former is, funnily enough, an “Untouchables” echo of undercover work based on the story of a thief turned Secret Service agent before the word “entrapment” was uppermost in the public prosecutor’s mind.
“Onward” was forged from the story of a prostitute helped along the way to a better life by none other than Charles Dickens. These pale when reading what can only be called combustible material in, say, “Snowblind” and “The Lost Seed”. “Snowblind” speaks of the Gold Rush years with two men caught in its madness, but is so evocatively told that you muse on it long after you finish. It is brutal, passionate and heartbreaking, a bit “Brokeback Mountain”, if you will, since this is peppered with movie references anyway. But you will feel every bit of the pain a young man who loves, loses and chooses sanity over more feckless adventure must feel, and the way Donoghue writes of the way he makes that choice, “with the certainty of a man who was still young”, how can you not. Her research surrenders such nuggets as windows made of deer-hide, and the surprise was “how well they let in the autumn light”. Here, you will also find what may have prompted the author to her subject; the unswerving ambition of immigrants, simply because they have “fire in the belly”.
The separated spouses in “Counting the Days”, who each think they need the other more, provides another insight into the immigrant condition; apart from the little things that make a marriage, it’s anger that drives men from their homes to bite and claw their way through unfriendly worlds and make a small corner their own. For better or worse, that is something to admire.
“The Lost Seed” will prove an instant favourite. A Puritan whose battle with the sins of the flesh is a thin cover for the “love that dare not speak its name”, is so wonderfully told that the reader is not sure whether to be moved to contempt or pity. It’s as awe-inspiring as “Rain” (!); you know the battle within is as tortured as the behaviour without. In a few deft sentences, we see how it starts and how it will end:
“Every (snow) flake falls alone, and yet on the ground they are all one.”
“I spoke to Mary Vincent’s father, and he was not opposed, but the girl would not have me.”
Twitter has understood it so well: Choose your words with the precision of a surgeon. It could mean deserved longevity, or instant death.
Astray, Emma Donoghue, Picador, Rs.599.