I really enjoy the writing of Emma Donoghue, the Irish writer of both novels and short stories. Her last novel, in 2011, was the outstanding Room (Picador), a surprising tale of a boy, Jack, whose entire life has been spent in a single room (12 by 12 ft) with his mother, Ma, a young woman held prisoner by Old Nick, the man who visits them every few days. It seems an unbearable subject, and with the revelations in the media over the last few years of several such real-life situations, one to which little could be added by fictional treatment.
Donoghue’s spare, elegant prose avoids any hint of gratuitous sensationalism as she describes the actually rather wondrous and intimate world that Ma has created for Jack, inhabited by his friends Table and Chair and Bed. There is TV as well, but Jack knows that nothing he sees on that screen is real. Room is real. This is Jack’s entire world, he knows no other but Ma is going to have to try to explain the world outside so that chances can be seized and opportunities made the most of. Their life is so well imagined by Donoghue, this is an amazing portrayal of a woman in a seemingly impossible to ameliorate situation, trying to create the best life for her child – and she sort of does: Jack is happy, stimulated, curious and healthy and doesn’t know he is a prisoner. Ma has done so well but Jack is starting to feel disquieted and restless…
The book has had rave reviews all over the place but I have also had to convince several of our customers to pick this book up – none of them regretted it, it is so much more optimistic than you’d think given the subject matter. Unsentimental and devastating yet also uplifting and joyous this is such a good book about the power of motherhood as opposed to the powerlessness of prisonerhood.
So, I pounced, yes, pounced, on Donoghue’s 2012 collection of short stories Astray (Picador). The varied and various characters in these short stories have all gone astray – they are emigrants, drifters and runaways, buffeted by events and emotions beyond their control and include a counterfeiter in Chicago, a prostitute in London, an attorney, a sculptor a mercenary, a corpse, an elephant and his keeper. Donoghue’s stories are based on real people and real happenings – she is inspired by odd snippets in old newspapers, historical archives and personal ephemera.
In the story Counting the Days, she constructs characters and fictive events around the 13 letters written in May 1848-May 1849 by Henry Johnson and Jane McConnell Johnson, while Henry was trying to create a new life in Canada and Jane and their children were in famine-struck Ireland, the story opens with Jane travelling to Canada.
Helpfully, Donoghue mentions her sources at the end of each story – the un-embroidered nature of these, the sense that there must be more to the tales than has been recorded or that has survived, is beautifully mined by Donoghue. This is a writer who is able to extract the hidden wonders and miseries of each story so well, to create characters so real, that these fictions feel like the Truth.