Each story in Astray, all of which were written over the last fifteen years, has at its heart the life on an emigrant, or at least an outsider, a drifter, somebody astray from the society that they inhabit. The book is split into three sections; ‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths.’ The stories under each heading look at the different emotions, strivings, and desires that drive the life of those desperate to escape, those forced to leave somewhere they’d rather stay, and, at times, the people disillusioned at where their life has ended up.
What makes this collection so fascinating is that every story is grounded in a real historical event. Every word in this collection has been inspired by something that Donoghue has read about while working as a historian. Whether it is an extensive collection of correspondence or a simple headline in a newspaper, Donoghue has reacted to it, and almost every time, she has weaved a gripping, powerful, and challenging story from the small seeds she found. Astray does everything that historical fiction should. Rather than making sweeping epics about the lives of the characters that inspired her, Donoghue has presented fourteen little snapshots, tiny episodes from a person’s life that not only indicate what life was like for that one person, but also give a lasting image of the era they lived in.
Astray deals with a variety of subjects. From the opening story, which features a man willing to sail across the world because of his love for an elephant, we know that we are not in the normal realm of historical fiction here. This won’t be story after story about kings and queens, heroes of war, or dodgy politicians that got away with murder. The histories in Astray are the histories of real people. They are easier to connect to than historical fiction tends to be; the people we are reading of could actually exist today, as could some of their situations. Switching skilfully between a huge variety of voices from story to story, Donoghue has managed to make the reader care deeply about the lives of people who are only a footnote in the annals of history, and she has done so by making them relevant to today.
Any Cop? It’s difficult to pick out the standout stories in this collection. Usually, when reviewing short stories, I fold down the front page of the ones that I love, so I can remember them when it comes to writing my review. At the end of Astray I had marked thirteen out of fourteen stories. Whether dealing with murderous slaves, lust-filled religious nuts, or just difficult family lives and the lengths people once had to go to for simple survival, Donoghue captures the reader and keeps a tight hold of them until each story ends, usually in emotion-filled final sentences.