Donoghue uses quietude to unsettling effect in search for human motivation

Astray

Emma Donoghue

Picador, €16.99

Review: Mary Leland

Emma Donoghue’s collection of 14 stories is arranged almost like a journey and indeed they all concern aspects of travel. Their grouping here presents them as a sequence — departures, arrivals and escapes — and suggests a presiding intention which removes them from the category of a short story ensemble.

That, however, is what they are, brief re-imaginings of events or characters most of which have existed in fact and here are given life as fiction.

Voluntarily or otherwise, the personalities of the first section are all about to leave home, although few of them as uncomfortably as Jumbo, an elephant whose devoted keeper explains in ‘Man and Boy’ why the animal is to be sent from the London Zoological Society to become instead a profitable headliner in Barnum’s Circus in America. The truth behind this story is taken from a flood of reports in the London ‘Times’ newspaper over four months in 1882 when the sale of Jumbo and his export from England to the USA became an enormous public controversy. Poor old Jumbo, already trafficked from the French Sudan, was a great hit in America but was killed when his keeper led him across a railway track which was also being used by an unexpected freight train. The desolate keeper decided not to return to England but clung to the fringes of the circus until he died in an American almshouse in 1914.

Mercifully Donoghue does not attempt to get into Jumbo’s massive head; instead the tale issues from the keeper, Matthew Scott, a lively and resourceful attendant reinvented with a canny turn of phrase and imperturbable self-assurance.

The writer’s skill in this and other chapters captures detail and fastens it to possibility, or plausibility. She expands the known into the guessed-at, working out the character behind the name, the domestic realities behind the newspaper reports, the pressured, even demented, personalities behind birth, death and marriage certificates, moving into and beyond lives listed in journal entries, legal records or surviving diaries.

In this way she brings the reader into worlds apart, such as the Plymouth Plantation on Cape Cod in 1649 where the settlers had hoped to establish a colony free of the temptations of the English Babylon they had left behind. Through the somewhat contrived direct speech of a colonist she evokes in ‘The Lost Seed’ the desperation of a man trying to live according to the statutes of a vengeful and somewhat prurient god. Here, as in certain other pieces, the first-person narrative imbues the story with an emotional power. However strange the environment might be, the emotion seems true.

Those worlds apart had their own commonplace domesticity, such as the accepted presence of slaves: ‘blacks and other movables’ says a lawyer assessing a property in the mid-18th century. Or epidemics of scarletina which provide the same lawyer with a client whose skirt hoops are so wide she has to go sideways through a door. This is the heroine of ‘The Widow’s Cruse’, a woman fashioned by Donoghue from a reference in the New York Weekly Journal of 1735. As the crisp little story progresses the lawyer begins to fantasise about marrying the woman so conveniently widowed and thus gaining control of her inheritance. None of this is blunt; everything is implied in a pleasantly light prose style which makes the whole affair so intriguing. Although not, it must be said, quite as intriguing as the attempt by a group of counterfeiters to spring a colleague from prison by holding Lincoln’s dead body to ransom.

As might be expected from a writer now living in Canada the extensive research which feeds the material for this book is largely from the North American continent, that place which, as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in one of his few memorable phrases, was not merely a destination, but a destiny.

It is pursuit of that destiny that Jane Johnson — a reverberating name in itself — is about to arrive in Quebec, bringing her two children from Belfast to meet up again with her husband. Jane on the ship, her husband on the land and the letters which united them during the intervening year are woven closely into the trauma of departure and discovery. This is a loving couple as their memories and letters prove, emigrating from their Antrim home despite having survived the famine yet unable to endure the bad times which followed it. Donoghue takes special care with Jane, giving her a bracing realism allied to a strongly sensual nature. The letters in the story have been taken verbatim from the correspondence published by their grand-daughter in 1948; the epilogue tells the reader where to find out more, and also fills in something of Jane’s subsequent career.

This inclusion of a little coda to each narrative is a consoling device for readers who don’t want the story to end until there is actually an ending. Donoghue can’t always provide one; what she offers is a glance at an episode or a personality, at people caught up in a particular happening. Or in something which might have, could have, happened.

Less dramatic, but nonetheless gripping in it’s own under-stated way is ‘The Gift’, in which a birth-mother and an adoptive father do battle through civilised correspondence. The chapters move through a few centuries before reaching the 1960s in Ontario with the last days of sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle but before that however is the quietly horrifying ‘The Hunt’ depicting the militia’s systematic rape of the female population of Hopewell, New Jersey in 1776.

Quietude is one of Donoghue’s most useful and most forceful attributes as a writer, and here it is employed to unsettling effect.

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