Precisely what makes Room so widely appealing is that Donoghue has created in Jack an ordinary five-year-old—a child for whom, by his very age, she was spared the challenge of creating any intellectual or psychological self-analysis—and inserted him into an extraordinary narrative situation. Jack’s delighted anthropomorphic celebration of his prison-home environment (“Plant used to live on Table but God’s face burned a leaf of her off”) reflects, importantly, not the psychological overcompensation of a young freak, but the plausible whimsy of any small child trying to gain control of his circumstances: your own preschooler might similarly anthropomorphize the jars of peanut butter and jelly at the lunch table. In spite of appearances, Donoghue has ultimately written a book not so much about a person as about an event or series of events; and Jack, in his buoyant and familiar chatter, remains strangely faceless—or, more accurately, a child with generic features—operating and reacting within the constraints of a prescribed scenario.
Although the story of Room is unique—and has proven uniquely gripping, in its contemporary tabloid horror—the undertaking itself is not different in kind from that which Donoghue repeats, with varying success, in the stories that comprise Astray: she selects a historical event or situation, and then sketches in serviceable characters in order best to highlight its broader shape or significance.
In “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in New York in 1735, a mysterious Mrs. Gomez solicits the help of a lawyer, Huddlestone, in order to sort out the financial affairs of her (supposedly) late husband. Both she and Huddlestone are repeatedly concerned to insist upon the limitations of women, each for their own reasons. “I’m only too painfully aware that a woman alone, confronting the full weight and complexity of the law, might as well be lost in the bush at night,” says she; and again, “I have no special powers or talents; I make no pretence to wit.” Whereas Huddlestone, seeing her as “all shrinking modesty; a true woman,” “had had to assure her that he would guide and protect her, every step of the way.”
The irony, of course, is that Mrs. Gomez, pretending to be frail and innocent, dupes Huddlestone, who, in keeping with his time and place, naively assumes her to be so. He arranges the release of her husband’s fortune, in the belief that Mr. Gomez is dead. She succeeds, moreover, in making Huddlestone fall in love with her, before taking the money and vanishing, bills unpaid. The story, based on a snippet in the New York Weekly Journal in May 1735, is certainly memorable and, at almost three hundred years’ remove, serves as a sly feminist rejoinder to the traditional order of history; but the portrayals of Huddlestone and Mrs. Gomez remain simplistic. What matters is not who they are, but what they do.
This fuzziness about the subtleties of human nature recurs even when Donoghue’s stories are most fully invented, rather than reliant on the fuller outlines of historical fact. “Vanitas,” narrated by a homely young Creole heiress named Aimée Locoul, is inspired by Donoghue’s visit to a southern plantation, and by the memoirs of its former mistress. In this case, Donoghue offers no direct historical narrative as the frame for her fiction. The story is a Gothic confection involving a beautiful dead cousin, a languishing aunt, an attic full of relics, the onset of menstruation, and a wrongly punished slave. Like every piece in Astray, it holds attention and entertains; but when the bathos of the cousin’s death is finally disclosed (her parents took her to Paris for a special acne treatment that may have caused her death), “Vanitas” seems suddenly more spoof than anything else, a mere amusement.
The moral Aimée takes from this revelation is contained in her aunt’s comment, “thank God you’ll never be beautiful,” which—given that Aimée’s personal maid Millie is, at the same time, being sold for a crime she didn’t commit—suggests that the Locouls are a silly and trivial lot. For a fiction so packed with events to surmount its melodramas would require that Aimée herself reveal some thoughtfulness or depth, some clarity of understanding, that alas remains lacking.
By no means all the pieces in the collection frustrate in this way. Several, like “What Remains,” provide moments of insight into lives far from our own. “The Hunt,” for example, captures a few days in the life of a young German mercenary in the British army in New Jersey in 1776. A pawn of history, sold into service by his prince, this fifteen-year-old boy is reluctant to participate in the wanton rape and pillage so buoyantly undertaken by his British comrades. Upon raiding a farmhouse outside Hopewell, the boy finds a girl hiding in the pantry. Attracted to her, naively romantic, he first sacrifices her relatives to the troops in order to spare her; but eventually he will succumb to the pressures of his superiors, and violate and destroy her. Donoghue writes this young man’s conflict beautifully: both fantasy and reality are present in the story’s sad conclusion:
And for a moment, as they set off across the meadow hand in hand like children, he lets himself believe that they are running away. That he is man enough to be a deserter…. But all the while he knows how it’s going to be.
There is poignancy, too, in “The Lost Seed,” a pilgrim story set on Cape Cod in 1639, narrated by one Richard Berry, whose loneliness and misery fuel his fire-and-brimstone condemnation of fellow settlers. He brings accusations against them, one after the other, for lewd conduct of various sorts, until he is doing so merely on account of a dream. When, finally, he must acknowledge that he is himself the source of malevolence, he is undone; and Donoghue imagines this bleak epiphany with moving tenderness:
I went across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime. And I wept, a thing I have not done since I was a child, and the water turned to ice on my cheeks.
Just as readers read for widely differing purposes, so too novelists create out of a great variety of interests and impulses. Donoghue is an extremely gifted writer, whose intelligence, curiosity, and liveliness inform even the slightest of her writings. But she has a weakness for stories worthy of The National Enquirer, and she is only intermittently interested in the individual. For this reader, at least, these can prove significant limitations. When, twenty-five years ago, a dashing Canadian intellectual and politician worked as a television presenter in the UK, he was dubbed, by the press, “the thinking woman’s crumpet”; Emma Donoghue’s fictions could, by the same token, be called “the thinking reader’s diversion.”
Never dull, these stories illuminate worlds like a magic lantern, spinning out scenes from fields and farmhouses and streets around the globe and through the centuries. As this animated but uneven collection makes clear, Donoghue’s imagination can alight upon almost anything and revivify it. But in the occasional glimmers of something deeper and more emotionally affecting, one sees the writer Donoghue may yet fully become, who would retrieve not only the costumes and correspondence of her characters, but would stop and truly listen to their hearts, and draw them tenderly into the light.