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Best Donoghue stories are near masterpieces

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Ontario-based Irish novelist Emma Donoghue isn't interested in the wider play of political or social history, but in the individual's crisis.

All 14 stories in this collection, her followup to her award-winning 2010 novel Room, resonate in some way for today, though Puritan New England in 1639 or even the Yukon in 1898 seem far from our concerns.

As implied by Donoghue herself, many of the stories see her working out of themes, and there is a wide variation in the quality of the tales.

However, when one is looking at as splendid a talent as Donoghue's to take the reader to the almost dream-like pasts she details, any doubts seem like quibbling. The best of the stories are near masterpieces.

Take The Hunt, set in the American Revolutionary War. Her inspiration comes from a note that the women of New Jersey were systemically attacked by British and Hessian troops in the occupation of 1776. Among the troops are boy soldiers, essentially tricked into joining the army.

The heartbreaking story tells of one of these boys caught up in what amounts to sanctioned terror.

It is Donoghue's gift that she balances empathy and outrage as the boy, who has kept knowledge of a girl secret from the other troops, succumbs to the corrupt world he has joined, and becomes part of this "hunt."

The echo in today's reality of boy soldiers and widespread rape in war is there, but Donoghue doesn't tie it up neatly.

Nor does she in any of the stories; historical circumstance may echo with us, but people are in their own time. All we can do is witness what we might have been in their world and reflect on our own.

The other great story, Man and Boy, is a monologue, or maybe an odd dialogue, between Matthew Scott and his charge, the elephant Jumbo.

Jumbo was a star phenomenon in Victorian England. Here we have Matthew, conversing, cajoling, loving, hating and cleaning up after this unruly, vain beast.

When P.T. Barnum buys Jumbo and takes him to North America, despite a noisy campaign to keep him in the London Zoo, Matthew follows. After all, how can you leave the love of your life?

The seriocomic monologue ends when they embark on their trip, as Matthew promises to provide "a father's care and a mother's care of you till the end. Are you with me?"

We learn in Donoghue's afterword that Jumbo was killed by an unscheduled freight train as Matthew led him across the tracks in London, Ont.

Less successful are a couple of stories set in the American South. Vanitas, for example, where a girl in antebellum Louisiana investigates the death of her cousin, is steeped in false romantic fervour. Others, such as the Yukon tale, Snowblind, feel generic, rare for a writer so detailed in the best stories.

Still, this collection is a wondrous journey where, as the author notes, one can "live more than one life, and walk more than one path."

 

Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

 

Astray

By Emma Donoghue

HarperCollins, 275 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J9

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