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Thank God You’ll Never Be Beautiful’

Astray

by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, 275 pp., $25.99
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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 Gift,” “The Lost Seed,” and “The Hunt”—the result is doubly moving: the story succeeds both on its own terms (in this instance, as the account of a person, in old age, confronting not only her own mortality but that of her lover and also, in some way, of their artwork, which was to have ensured immortality) and as a fragment of history recovered, eliciting the reader’s frisson at recognizing that these people actually lived this fate. For each of her stories, Donoghue provides a coda, an explanation of the catalyst or inspiration for her creation; for “What Remains,” it is Elspeth Cameron’s 2007 biography of the two women, And Beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle.

The challenge of such a collection—or rather, the challenge of publishing such a collection—is that many of the pieces inevitably retain a fragmentary quality, rather like the assemblage of artist’s sketches that might accompany, in an exhibition, a larger work. Spaced through time from the mid-seventeenth century to 1967 (with a great preponderance of stories set in the mid- to late-nineteenth century), and across the continent and the globe from London to the Yukon to Louisiana, these stories are striking for their range and freedom, linked by themes of dislocation and resettlement.

“What Remains” is rare, however, in exploring a relatively ordinary scenario (with the caveat that the two women sculptors were, in their time, extraordinary). In many cases there is an almost cartoonish vividness to the unlikely eccentrics Donoghue holds up for examination. There is the elephant handler obsessively devoted to his charge (“Man and Boy”); the cross-dressing cowboy who drags delinquent husbands home to their wives (“The Long Way Home”); the double-dealing body snatcher who arranges the arrest of a gang of counterfeiters when they attempt to raid Lincoln’s grave (“The Body Swap”). There is the young woman who discovers upon his death that her man-about-town father was in fact a transvestite (“Daddy’s Girl”). All of these unlikely stories, we learn, are true; but with this knowledge comes the risk that the cases laid out in Donoghue’s deft codas prove more arresting than her handling of them; that we remember not so much the textures of her fabrications as the magpie-sharp selection of the facts with which she works.

One senses cumulatively through this book the capacious curiosity of Emma Donoghue’s mind, and the breadth of her knowledge. An academic by training and a fiction writer by vocation, she is not only a marvelous researcher, but has the ability expertly to deploy the intriguing details she has uncovered. She evokes with equal authority a nineteenth-century Creole plantation in Louisiana (“Everything on our Plantation is yellow and red—not just the houses but the stables, the hospital, and the seventy slave cabins that stretch back like a village for three miles, with their vegetable gardens and chicken pens”); a prospector’s claim in the Yukon near the turn of the twentieth century—

That winter the mates made all the mistakes of young men in too much of a hurry to ask. They got stomachache when they didn’t bother cooking their beans long enough, and toe rot from sleeping in wet boots. The one thing they knew never to do was let the fire die out

—and the New York City streets in 1735 (“Huddlestone stared out the grimy window at the human traffic, spotting Highlander blow-ins and stern old Dutch, penniless Palatines and English infantrymen. Just about every second face was black”).

That said, her exuberant intelligence is restless and often superficial, and in the creation of these stories, striking concrete detail almost inevitably trumps psychological insight: again, like sketches, these pieces evoke form and movement rather than any deeper illumination of character. This is not, it goes without saying, a necessary effect of the brevity of the form: one has only to think of masters of the short story, from Chekhov to Alice Munro. It is, rather, a matter of emphasis and temperament, and with rare exceptions, Donoghue proves a writer more concerned with the idiosyncratic digressions of history than the fibrillations of the self.

Admirers of her fiercely energetic eighteenth-century bildungsroman Slammerkin (2000) will recall that part of that novel’s accomplishment lies in a successful pastiche of eighteenth-century fiction itself: the turbulent adventures of young Mary Saunders—from schoolhouse to hangman’s noose, via a life of prostitution in London and subsequent attempted rehabilitation in provincial Monmouth—constitute a rollicking picaresque. The shifts in point of view that punctuate the novel’s second half do not, in the spirit of Faulkner, say, shed light upon almost ineffable complexities of the characters’ psyches: rather, they serve to provide a full and convincingly authentic portrait of social networks, ambition, and mobility (and their limitations) in provincial England in the 1760s, a setting in which Mary Saunders’s grand aspirations can more clearly be read. Mary herself is tough and resilient, to be sure; but she remains primarily a lens through which we view a great deal of vividly conjured experience, as well as a spritely commentary upon actual eighteenth-century heroines, rather than a sophisticated, reflective consciousness in her own right.

It is interesting to compare this to Hilary Mantel’s recent Tudor novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: Mantel’s books are so intensely psychologically mined, and with such precision and subtlety, that our readerly cultural alienation from the sixteenth century is all but elided. The trappings of pageantry, knights jousting, barges upon the Thames become like birdsong in the landscape: marvelously and aptly evoked, but rarely in the foreground. Instead, we live with Thomas Cromwell—in his actions, to be sure, but also in his barely acknowledged and sometimes conflicting desires, in his hesitant aspirations, in his unexpressed nostalgia—as fully as with any great twentieth- or twenty-first-century character, and we experience the psychodynamics of the religious and romantic power struggles of the court of Henry VIII with as much immediacy as if they took place even now inside the Beltway. Crucially, the one begets the other. For Mantel, it is by understanding her character utterly à fond that she will make sense of the outlines of history: there is no forest without its trees. Whereas for Donoghue, the forest is the thing.

In fact, paradoxically, Donoghue’s extremely successful last novel, Room —not a historical book—is a further case in point, perhaps the case in point. Set in the present, in this country (Dora the Explorer is on television; E pluribus unum is on the pennies), it tells, in the first person, the story of five-year-old Jack and his mother, and of their escape from the garden shed in which his mother’s kidnapper, Old Nick, has held them since abducting Jack’s mother when she was a college student of nineteen (Jack is the product of his mother’s rape by this man). Hailed by many reviewers for its supposed authenticity, Room closely resembles a historical novel, insofar as the author writes about something she cannot possibly herself have experienced; and there is virtually no living person who can authoritatively gainsay the authenticity of her invention. This is true in spite of the appalling discovery in 2008 in Austria of Elisabeth Fritzl and her incestuously produced children, all held captive over many years by her father, Josef Fritzl (a story that, it has been suggested, strongly inspired Donoghue, although she has denied this). Even these children, once beyond the age of ten, would be hard-pressed thoroughly to reconstruct their experiences at the age of five, a time of which most people retain only patchy memories.

The fact is that Room takes, as its premise, the truth articulated by Jack’s mother in an interview, when she says of his imprisonment: “It wasn’t an ordeal to Jack, it was just how things were.” Kids don’t know any better; they just get on with it. And even in extremely strange situations, within certain parameters (in the absence of physical or mental illness, abuse, or radical neglect), five-year-old children behave in relatively recognizable ways. In spite of the ghastly shadow of Old Nick, Jack’s mother has protected and lovingly raised her small son: herein lies the hope of the novel.

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.

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