A room with many views

Astray, by Emma Donoghue, Picador RRP£14.99/ Little, Brown RRP$25.99, 274 page

The Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue became well known for her 2010 novel Room, which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes for fiction. It was narrated in the pitch-perfect voice of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a modified garden shed. And just as Lionel Shriver drew upon American high-school shootings to inspire We Need to Talk about Kevin, Donoghue took elements of Austria’s Fritzl family kidnapping case to craft her breakout work. Like Shriver, Donoghue was already a prolific author when that alchemy of prize nods, controversial subject matter and, crucially, talent brought her worldwide recognition – Room was her seventh novel, and she has long been a short story writer. Real events have also informed Donoghue’s latest collection, Astray.

Where Room was a contemporary novel of stasis and claustrophobia, Astray is a collection of historical fiction featuring nomads, tricksters and misfits. In “The Body Swap”, a group of counterfeiters plots to hold Abraham Lincoln’s body to ransom. In “The Gift”, a struggling mother writes increasingly distressed letters to the New York Children’s Aid Society in an attempt to recover her daughter Lily May, who has been sent on an “orphan train” and adopted by a Midwestern family: “You refer twice to ‘the orphans’ but remember she is only a half, she has got one parent living. If I am spared and nothing prevents, the father of us all will permit me to have my little one back.” And in “Snowblind”, Swedish Goat and Injun Joe form a touching alliance, panning for gold through a brutal North American winter. “At least they’d found each other. You’d got to have a partner or you wouldn’t make it, that’s what the old-timers said.”

Each of these tales comes from a kernel of truth – the last gold rush to the Yukon; or the extraordinary phenomenon of the Orphan Trains, which ran between 1853 and 1929, and on which a quarter of a million impoverished children were dispatched from New York and other eastern cities to be adopted by willing rural families. In the case of the opening tale of the collection, “Man and Boy”, it is the sale of London’s beloved Jumbo the elephant to the US Barnum circus troupe in 1882. Jumbo’s keeper crossed the Atlantic with him, and Donoghue’s version is a love story, utterly unsentimental, between a misanthrope and an unresponsive pachyderm: “Today’s the evil day, Jumbo, I believe you know it. You’re all a-shiver, and your trunk hovers in front of my face as if to take me in ... There, there. Have a bit of gingerbread. Let me give your leg a good hard pat.”

After each of these – sometimes very short – narratives, Donoghue steps out from behind the curtain to give us the facts, both the source of her inspiration and what happened after the vignette of her story. We learn what happened to Jumbo. She reveals what happened in the case of Lily May. In doing so, she exposes the relationship of her fiction to reality; and for anyone with an interest in the process of writing she provides a tantalising insight into its mechanism, and the way in which she harvests ideas from the world, tales from newspapers, archives, letters, museums. In “Daddy’s Girl”, inspired by a 1901 article from the New York Times, the daughter of a successful Manhattan businessman discovers that her father is really a woman. “What a fool I was, we all were. Daddy’s friends used to complain that all the years they were going bald as taters, he never lost a hair off his head ... I should have wondered about that, shouldn’t I? But a girl’s not inclined to set to wondering, when it’s her own daddy.”

Donoghue takes us from Ireland to Canada, Louisiana to Chicago. Running through the collection is a persistent theme of emigration and displacement, as characters are thrust into new worlds, new countries and new identities.

Unlike her novels, Astray is not a book that inspires much empathy – if nothing else, the stories are often too brief to create real emotional involvement. But their interest lies elsewhere, in the rich strangeness of the lives of others. Donoghue has a remarkable feel for period detail, able to shift effortlessly between continents, centuries, races and classes. She is equally convincing as a 17th-century troublemaker in the colonies, busily accusing others of lurid sexual deviance, as she is in the voice of a girl from a Creole family in Louisiana, still yearning for a France they barely know.

Some authors inspire us with their distinctive, inimitable voices. We love them for their familiar lilts and trills – the tune of each novel might be new but we always recognise the singer. Donoghue is an artist of a different kind. She is a shape-shifter, a subtle, imaginative impersonator. What changes from book to book is no less than the style, the era and the author herself. But what unifies all her prose is an uncommon ability to animate a quirk of history, to uncover in her fiction the oddities that make real life so fascinating.

Francesca Segal is the author of ‘The Innocents’ (Chatto & Windus)

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