Wednesday, 8 June 2016

A Stranger Comes to Town

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s collection of fifteen short stories is all about changing situations; leaving places and immigration. In her afterword she explains, “By long tradition, Irish writers emigrate. Not always, of course, not nowadays – but still, many of us fly the coop. It’s a small island, after all. It’s rare to find Irish writers who haven’t spent at least a few years abroad or who don’t pass half of their time at foreign universities.”

Whether it is the elephant handler in Man and Boy who has to take his charge from a zoo in England to a performing circus in America, or the woman in The Widow’s Cruse who pretends her husband is dead and presents his will, allowing her to come into a fortune and emigrate as a widow; all of these characters explore new worlds. 

All of these people, and they are usually women, remain outcasts in their new country. In Last Supper at Browns a white woman in Texas kills her abusive husband and goes on the run with her slave. In The Long Way Home a nomadic woman returns straying husbands to their wives who are trying to raise their families.

A man is tortured by paranoid hallucinations in The Lost Seed, and accuses others of lewd acts in a puritan community (Cape Cod 1639) in which he is despised. A boy becomes a ‘man’ in The Hunt when he is forced to rape a girl he has befriended as a casualty of war. Emma Donoghue explains the dual meaning of her collection: “Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you’re far from home?”

All of the tales are based on true records, whether from diaries, letters, or newspaper cuttings, from the bunch of counterfeiters whose party is infiltrated by an undercover agent when they break into Lincoln’s tomb in The Body Swap, to the woman in The Gift who gives her child into what she thinks of as foster care until she can afford to support her, but meanwhile the family with whom she is placed adopt her as their own. No one wins in this heartbreaking situation, told through letters to the agency from both sides.

Emma Donoghue explores all these disparate tales and draws them together with themes of belonging, alienation and difference. Everyone is a traveller through life; we are all a little bit strange; and we all deserve compassion and to grant it to others. We may all be straying sheep, biblical or black, but hopefully there is a welcoming fold for all of us.