ASTRAY by Emma Donoghue (Little Brown), 228 pages, $25.91 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
No question, Room, Emma Donoghue's Writers' Trust prize-winning, Booker shortlisted novel, is brilliant, proof that the Irish-born, now London, Ontario-based writer can pull great fiction out of her imagination.
But I'm glad to see she's returned to her forte, making stories out of snippets of history. In Slammerkin, Life Mask and The Sealed Letter, she wove those bits into whole novels. Astray's 14 stories, each with its own base in the past, span 400 years of court records, newspapers and even rumour.
They are beautiful and fully realized, dealing with lives lived in both the UK and North America. In the savvy The Widow's Cruse (sic), a lawyer fantasizes about his client, and the joke's on him. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum's circus, much to the dismay of his handler, in Man And Boy. Last Supper At Brown's makes the connection between slavery and women's place in the home.
Elsewhere, there are gender-bending stories, a beautiful variation on the Brokeback Mountain theme, a woman throwing her weight around in a mining community and other compelling storylines.
After each, the writer lets us in on the source that inspired her.
As always with Donoghue, the language is precise, the sense of place - even as it shifts from tale to tale - strong and the characters fascinating, all the more so because they're drawn from real life.
Don't put the book down until you've read the epilogue, where Donoghue explains her title, describes the thematic links between the stories and connects them to her own life. But whatever you do, don't read that before you begin; it's full of spoilers. SUSAN G. COLE
I'll be interviewing Donoghue Wednesday (September 19) at the Toronto Reference Library. See listing.
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