Sunday, 18 November 2012

Astray - short story tastic

Astray by Emma Donoghue (Picador: 2012) A collection of short stories by Irish writer Emma Donoghue. All based on real people and real events, Donoghue shines a light onto the lives of a series of people who have all gone astray, crossing borders of nation, sex, race, law, sanity, etc.
Read the GBR interview with Emma Donoghue here.
She does a good job of making you pick a book up, Donoghue. The only other of hers that I’ve read, Room, had such a compelling premise that I fair sprinted to turn over the front cover and get going. Astray, too, has an intriguing sell – a series of historical fiction short stories, all focussing on people who have strayed beyond the boundaries of ordinary life in some profound way.
I like that.
And I like that this is done as a collection of short stories. It seems apt. Little snippets of lives, one after the other. It keep you a little dislocated as you’re going through it. You don’t spend days and days in the company of single stories, getting comfortable with motivations and setting. Just as you feel you’re starting to understand the meaning behind the latest tale, Donoghue whisks you away to the next.
It’s a showcase for Donoghue’s talent as well. Each story is distinct. Each voice authentic. Short stories they may be, but Donoghue gives a complete picture of each person she tells us about. Sometimes she does it through careful description, and sometimes she does it by simply writing in such a true way that the language gives you a distinct feel for the people.
I’m piling up points in the pro column here. The plots should go there too. Donoghue has corralled such a disperse but vital set of outcasts that each story grabs, often in different ways. There are explanatory notes at the end of each story and at the end of the book, constantly reminding us these tales are based on real people and real events. She shows where she takes artistic licence, but pushes home the point that the crux of these stories and the lessons she tries to show through them are real.
That’s the fascination of historical fiction. It may be dramatised and it may not be 100% real, but enhanced or not, the lessons are the true. And Donoghue has done a good job of picking some honest to goodness fascinating episodes, and enhanced them beautifully with her own talent.
So those are the pros. I’m going to paint myself out of the corner though. A little, at least. I got to the end of Astray and was desperate to pick up a novel again. I love short stories when in the mood, but reading a collection from beginning to end tends to leave me with a need to invest in something more substantial again. Not Donoghue’s fault, more a weakness of the format, but true all the same.
And then there’s the living-up-to-the-premise challenge. It was the major problem I had with Room (though that kicked in with an 8 GBR). And I recognised it again here. Astray promises to show us a diverse range of characters with a common theme – they’re all astray in society. I struggled to follow the common thread though. There was such an opportunity here to tie these stories together so much more than they are. It would have helped overcome that short story weakness I mentioned – the feeling you’re never investing in anything chunky. But as far as I could see, the opportunity was missed.
The stories were too disparate. The structure suggested by the title of the collection and the blurb on the dust jacket seemed a little manufactured, a little imposed. I enjoyed each individual story, some of them immensely, but I felt short changed there wasn’t a wider arc around them. A wider meaning. When I interviewed the author, she mentioned the stories were written over many years.  This made sense. It felt like they were all picked up and then a common thread was looked for, rather than written with the wider structure in mind.
Which is all a little harsh. The con column at the moment has only two things in it – one is a weakness of all short stories, and the other is a weakness of composition. The individual stories in here are incredibly strong. But both cons were enough to leave me feeling just ever so slightly flat by the time I turned the last page.
Donoghue is an amazing writer. Really she is. I like her a lot. I might go back and read some of her earlier stuff. And Astray  is really good, but falls short of amazing.
Next week, a book I’m reading on the recommendation of a GBR reader. So if it sucks, it’ll be your fault.

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