I am joining Tania @ Write Reads for her Summer of the Canadian Short Story reading challenge. This is the first short story collection I have read since starting my blog, and I chose Astray after reading Laura’s review on it at Reading in Bed.
Astray is written by Emma Donoghue, who is well known as the author of Room and Frog Music. It is a collection of short stories about people who are, or have been, on the move. The best thing about these stories are the historical snippets at the end of each one, describing the records/letters/newspaper clippings that the author used as inspiration for her stories. I read through the book in no time at all, eager to find out what was coming next.
It would be impractical for me to write about all the stories in the book, although I would like to. Some of her subjects and characters, spanning the past four centuries, include: Jumbo the elephant, a prostitute, Charles Dickens, swindlers, a run-away slave, murderers, emigrants, prospectors, orphans, a community of puritans, boy soldiers, and sculptors.
I will choose one of my favourite stories, Counting the Days, to talk about in a bit more detail. It is 1849, and Jane and her two children are on a ship from Ireland, destined for Canada where they are hoping to re-unite with their husband/father. Jane and Henry have been writing letters since their separation, and these letters are the source of inspiration for this story. There are so many cases of men emigrating ahead of their families, then sending for them after they’ve gotten settled. In this case, Donoghue says, “… what drew me into Jane and Henry’s letters was not the description of the Atlantic crossing, but something rarer – the sense of a living, breathing marriage. The tensions are audible, but love beats like a pulse between the lines. Thousands of miles apart, husband and wife are welded together through their letters; the irony every history lover knows is that distance is what preserves, by pinning emotion onto paper.”
Emma Donoghue has written an Afterword at the end of her book, telling about each story in her collection. I loved reading her views on each story, and what it was that intrigued and inspired her to write them. Donoghue feels that, being an emigrant herself has been one of the reasons why she has written so many stories about travel.
“Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.”
“Unease. Wonder. Melancholy. Irritation. Relief. Shame. Absentmindedness. Nostalgia. Self-righteousness. Guilt. Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form. Migration is mortality by another name, the itch we can’t scratch. Perhaps because moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life. Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch: my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, walk more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same.”
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading these stories, and disappointed when I finished. I would recommend this collection to anyone looking for some short stories. Short story collections also make excellent bathroom books! I didn’t know how many books I would get read for this challenge, but after reading this one, I am excited to read another. The only problem is, there are too many to choose from! What are some of your favourites?