In the tsunami of family relics that overwhelmed me upon the sale of my parents’ house in Ontario last year were those belonging to my grandmother’s cousin Esther, who died in the year before my birth and was known to us chiefly as the provenance of our family’s Steinway baby grand piano, bequeathed to my infant sister. We were also the inheritors of Esther’s photograph albums (young Esther with her mother in front of a Victorian farmhouse; middle-aged Esther in front of the Taj Mahal, etc.), of her correspondence, and of her framed sketches for the numerous stained-glass windows she designed in collaboration with Yvonne Williams—many of which adorn churches in Toronto, Montreal, and elsewhere to this day.
Esther has remained a cipher. I know only that she was born in St. Louis, that she traveled widely, never married, and had modest independent means. I have never understood even her exact relation to my grandmother, although a little searching reveals that she and Yvonne were friends of Northrop Frye’s, mentioned several times in his published correspondence from England in the 1930s. I do not know whether Yvonne was Esther’s lover as well as her collaborator. When the time came for the house to be emptied, I pointed out her sketches to the shark-eyed so-called “antique” dealer who hauled away what remained lock, stock, and barrel. He did little more than blink, and did not bother to write down Esther’s name. Thus are small, notable lives washed out into the sea of history, and forgotten.
Emma Donoghue’s new collection of stories, Astray, represents numerous acts of retrieval, written over the course of the past fifteen years: the reconstruction of actual people from newspaper clippings, correspondence, or historical records of particular events, acts, or relationships that might have been otherwise lost to us. One of them, “What Remains,” a delicately executed first-person narrative relayed from a nursing home in Newmarket, Ontario, in 1967, inhabits the voice of Florence Wyle, a Canadian sculptor, at the age of eighty-five, as she watches her lifelong companion and collaborator Frances Loring, known as Queenie, disappear into dementia.
Far more widely renowned than my cousin Esther and her partner Yvonne, these two women are heralded as Canada’s first women sculptors, and their work can be found in galleries across the country. But surely few of their admirers have stopped to imagine the pained diminishment of their last years (“All this week Queenie’s been having delusions. She sits up in bed, the sheets draped around her like snow on the Niagara Escarpment”), Florence’s stubborn hold upon her fading beloved (“What matters is to hold on to what’s left”), and her weary despair (“I keep hold of Queenie’s hand, but only because I can’t think of anything else to do”).
When this act of resuscitation is most effective—as it is in “What Remains” and several of the other pieces in the collection, including “The …