Still suffering from my chunky book hatred, I picked up another skinny book over the weekend (with large font so it makes me think I’m ready really fast) before I got back into the slog of the 1400 page monster. A couple of years ago I won a copy of Room by Emma Donoghue. I’d read a few little things about the book before I picked it up and read it myself, mostly that it was a little bit disturbing and would take the reader out of their comfort zone. Yes it was disturbing and way out of my comfort zone but the thing that stood out for me was the emotion created by the writing. It wasn’t just words on a page, it was real human emotion. Her latest novel, Astray, has that same emotion travelling through it’s pages.
Astray is a collection of short stories that Donoghue has been writing over the last decade or so. They are fictional stories based on fact, most of them inspired by news clippings and historical records and are all related in some way to immigrating to either Canada or America. Being an Irish immigrant to Canada, Donoghue was inspired by her own journey and how different her life might have been if she never made a change as large as moving to a new country.
The stories go as far back as the 1600’s in puritan Massachusetts, when the first immigrants had just started settling and as late as the 1960’s in Toronto, with two female sculptors who spend the greater parts of their together. Each story is different and special in it’s own way, with it’s own turmoil and often misguidedness on behalf of some of the characters. I would imagine that immigrating to another country a couple of centuries ago would have been not only difficult, but also very traumatic. This is made particularly apparent in one of the short stories titled Counting the Days, which is based on the correspondence of a husband and wife in the 1800’s. He has gone ahead a year earlier and now she is following with the children, but sadly things do not go to plan, which was not uncommon back in those times.
My favourite story by far was titled The Widow’s Cruse, which was inspired by a short paragraph in a 1730’s newspaper, about a woman who had all of a sudden found herself widowed. Donoghue came up with her own characters for this story and based the plot around this one paragraph. The story follows a lawyer whose services are engaged by a young Jewish woman, whose husband has just passed away leaving her alone with no money and no family except that of her deceased husband. Enamoured by the young widow’s grief and the knowledge of her inheritance, the lawyer casts aside all other cases and as per the widow’s wishes, has the process of her gaining her inheritance sped up. Eventually, the dollar signs spinning in his eyes get the better of him and the widow proves smarter than anyone would have given her credit for.
I wouldn’t call this an entertaining read. Not because it’s bad or boring or anything like that, but I don’t think that it’s something that I would pick up if I wanted to be entertained. This is the book you pick up when you want a quiet, but quick read with great writing and interesting characters. The short stories are all different but all have a feeling of displacement about them – either physically or mentally and this is what makes it not entertaining, but captivating.