Despite hearing good things about it, I'd never read any of Emma Donoghue's work, largely because the subject matter of her most well known novel, Room, seemed too harrowing for my taste. Then I picked up the short story collection Astray and got my first taste of her writing.
All of the stories in the collection deal with the theme of being unmoored in some way. Each is centered around characters who are about to leave their homes, in transit between two places, or just arriving somewhere new. They're all short works of historical fiction, set in time periods that span from the 1600s to the 1960s. Donoghue's brand of historical fiction takes the phrase a bit more literally than some authors might. She doesn't just pepper her stories with period details of a specific time and place, but basis the circumstances of each of her stories on events that actually transpired. She follows each story with a short explanation of the historical facts that inspired it. In some cases, it's a fairly well known incident involving famous figures like P.T. Barnum or Charles Dickens. In others, it's a piece of local news that was unearthed by some obscure historical record or newspaper clipping. In all cases, it's clear that Donoghue has a passion for digging through history. The stories she creates from her findings give new life to all but forgotten bits of the past.
The opening story, "Man and Boy", is my personal favorite in the book. Its first few pages are quite disconcerting, with the narrator addressing the reader in the second person. Slowing you realize that the narrator is the elephant keeper at a London zoo, and the "you" he's addressing is his charge. A surprisingly touching story unfolds as the one-sided dialogue--relatable to any pet owner--reveals the affectionate bond that exists between the elephant and the keeper, who's an otherwise hardened curmudgeon. Most of the stories in Astray provide interesting reading, and I'd highly recommend this one if you only have time for one or two of them.