It is a measure of the strength of Emma Donoghue’s reputation — much enhanced by her previous book, the bestselling novel Room — that she has been allowed to publish a collection of short stories, although conventional wisdom decrees it a financially risky proposition for publishers. This is good news for readers who enjoy this form of storytelling, which requires the writer to pack a narrative punch into a limited space.
In the well received Astray, Donoghue offers us a series of short stories based on historical events. They range across time and place, from Dickens’ London to the Newmarket, Ontario of the late 1960s, and showcase Donoghue’s considerable imaginative energy. She possesses a fine control of language, which she puts to good use creating convincing dialogue for a variety of eras, locales, classes and genders. Her muscular prose easily carries the reader along.
The opening story, “Man and Boy,” which originally appeared in Granta, is a poignant account of the relationship between Jumbo the elephant and his keeper, Matthew Scott. It is in Scott’s lively voice, and reveals the deep and moving bond between the man and the enormous beast who was his charge. The London Zoological Society, having exhibited Jumbo for years, has just sold him to P.T. Barnum, and he is to be shipped across the ocean. Scott’s sorrow and Jumbo’s resistance in the face of this betrayal are beautifully drawn, and the reader cannot avoid thinking of all the modern-day Jumbos suffering a similar fate.
The other thirteen stories in the book are less convincing. Each has its merits, but none so fully creates a world. There are some good plot twists, drawn from life – Caroline’s surprisingly illicit work in “Onward,” the unlikely alliance in “Last Supper at Brown’s.” Some of the stories are simply imaginative explorations of what a historical moment might have meant for those experiencing it (“The Gift”) – exactly what makes history live. And in some cases the stories come at a moment from an unfamiliar angle, giving us the pleasurable tingle of cognitive dissonance – how would the world of the Arizona prospector look through the eyes of a buckskin-wearing woman who drinks like a man and stinks of cigarillos?
But all too often these stories are weak. They set up a situation but have little narrative power. They telegraph their resolutions from miles away. They feel much more like vignettes than like complete tales (always a danger with the short story). In some cases, they feel like sketches for novels, radically incomplete. One example is “Daddy’s Girl,” which gives away its surprise up front and then bumbles to an anticlimax. “Onward” is another; the connection to Charles Dickens revealed in the explanatory note at the end is much more interesting than the story itself. The characters of Caroline and Fred are dull; their situation somewhat less so. What we learn about Dickens, which is in the note and not in the story, is easily the best part.
Donoghue’s writing talent is indisputable, her knowledge of history broad and her eye for the telling detail in historical records sharp. So why is this collection, which uses all those gifts, so unsatisfying? The explanatory notes that follow each story are key. On the one hand, they show that some of these tales are merely shells constructed around a genuinely intriguing or revealing event, stray shards of plot unmotivated by living characters. On the other hand, the notes emphasize the insufficiency of the stories as narratives, whole unto themselves. The stories illuminate these hidden places of history, but their light does not shine much beyond.
Elise Moser’s second book, a novel for young adults called Lily and Taylor, will appear from Groundwood Books in the fall.