Book Review: Astray by Emma Donoghue

Astray – Emma Donoghue (Back Bay Books, 2012)

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Emma Donoghue so it shouldn’t be surprising that I also loved this short story collection. But I really was blown away. The Wonder showed me that Donoghue excels in historical fiction but I was still so impressed by what she manages to attain in this collection of historical stories.

Donoghue takes a series of real-life snippets and in just a few pages, she brings these historical vignettes to life. I would argue that this is harder to do than in short stories set in the present day because you have to place the reader in a time and location that they may be very unfamiliar with. And yet Donoghue does it over and over again so that each story felt as real as it actually is.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from this collection because even some weeks later, there are many that are still turning over in my mind. The Widow’s Cruse where a day-dreaming lawyer makes the mistake of underestimating a woman who employs him. The Body Swap, which felt like an entire movie of action and intrigue and Americana. Vanitas left me wanting to know everything about the main characters life – a rich young girl growing up in Louisiana in 1839.

I particularly loved that each story ended with a brief explanation of the real events that inspired Donoghue. Sometimes when I read historical fiction, I’m curious to know exactly how much of it is true and how much the author embellished. I wonder if Donoghue is the same because I felt like she provided exactly the information I found myself wanting to google as I read.

Travel is a theme throughout the collection, often from the “Old World” to the “New”. The stories are loosely arranged, under headings of “Departures”, “In Transits”, and “Arrivals and Aftermaths”. It was interesting to go back and re-consider these stories under these headings and decide if I agreed with their placements. I think this is a collection I will return to more than once.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Astray by Emma Donoghue”

    1. I’ve only read one by Emma Straub but I’d say the two are pretty different. Straub’s books are more modern day, more of a quick read. Donoghue seems to do more historical fiction. Though she also wrote Room which has a modern setting. I’ve liked everything I’ve read from her so far.

    1. I’ve really liked everything I’ve read from her too! I don’t remember this book getting much attention but it certainly is deserving of it.

  1. Wow I had no idea she had even written this collection! And come to think of it, I don’t believe I have ever read a short story collection made up entirely of historical fiction – that just seems to rare! occasionally one piece of the collection will be historical, but so often I feel as though all short stories take place in the present-day.

    1. I think I read an ARC of a book a few years ago that was all historical short fiction. But it’s definitely really rare! I’d never known about this collection before either.

  2. I haven’t read anything by Emma Donoghue except the first half of Room, which I read in a single sitting during a break on a night shift several years ago – I enjoyed it but had to leave it at a slightly traumatic point to get back to work, and somehow I have never quite gone back to it! Would this be a good place to start again with her, do you think?

    1. Room is intense! That was my first introduction to her work as well. I’ve also read The Wonder which is historical so has quite a different feel to it. This collection felt more in line with that novel so it could be a good intro for you.

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