Thursday, May 13, 2021

Fiction Review: Astray

Last month on audio, I listened to the short story collection Astray by Emma Donoghue. I loved her novel Room but haven't had a chance to read any of her later novels. I didn't realize this was short stories when I started listening, but I was quickly immersed in this interesting, eclectic collection of stories.

The stories featured in this collection are all very different, with settings in the UK, US, and Canada, with diverse characters and situations. They are all connected by the theme of the book--astray--and Donoghue explains the stories are all about travelers and immigrants, with the book divided into parts: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. In each case, Donoghue took some small nugget of obscure news from real history, spanning from the 1700's to the early 1900's, and built a story around it, fleshing out the characters and filling in fictional details. "Man and Boy," the first story in the collection, is about Jumbo, a famous elephant at the London Zoological Society in the 1800's, and his trainer. Jumbo's been sold to P.T. Barnum but is reluctant to board the crate on the ship bound for America. It's written entirely from the perspective of the trainer, as he talks to Jumbo. "Last Supper at Brown's" is set in 1800's Texas, about an enslaved man who escapes with his master's wife. At the end of the 19th century, two treasure-hunting men barely survive a harsh winter in a tiny cabin during the Klondike Gold Rush in "Snowblind." "The Hunt" is a chilling story of a very young man conscripted as a soldier during the Revolutionary War and how the war changes him. After each story, Donoghue includes an afterword detailing her sources for the bit of news on which she based the story.

Each individual story in this collection is fascinating and immersive, which I sometimes find frustrating in short stories--just as I'm getting into the story, it ends--but not in this case. Somehow, each story was exactly the right length and satisfying. The audio production was very well-done, using multiple narrators, with the Afterwords read by Donoghue herself. I enjoyed every single story, and taken together, they form an intriguing picture of regular people throughout history, sometimes caught in extraordinary circumstances and often reinventing themselves. I can't imagine the research Donoghue must have done to discover these obscure, interesting little bits of news. In an interview, she said that she worked on this collection over the course of 15 years, which makes sense to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of engrossing stories about people who are outsiders, traveling (physically or some other way) to new places for fresh starts.

304 pages, Little, Brown and Company

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.


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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, from the first story, "Man and Boy," about Jumbo and his trainer, and/or download it from Audible.


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