book review: Astray by Emma Donoghue

The backstory: Although I'm not a big fan of short story collections, I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue and her varied work (my reviews of Room and The Sealed Letter.)

The basics: Astray is a diverse collection of stories.The characters and locations spread across centuries and continents. What unites them is a sense of theme: each story features a character who is somehow astray.

My thoughts: The first story in Astray didn't particularly captivate me. It's the story of a British circus elephant and his trainer as they prepare to move to the United States. It was enjoyable enough, but what really enchanted me was the unexpected author's note at the story's end. The story was rooted in history and based on real characters and events. As I continued to read, I looked forward to these author's notes. It was a fascinating glimpse into both what intrigues Donoghue and how much history the characters were rooted in.

The collection's second story, "Onward" is among my favorites. It's a touching, yet sad story, and Donoghue's language is haunting: "love happens, like age or weather. I'ts not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes." When I do enjoy a collection of short stories, there is typically one that shines brightest for me, but that wasn't the case with Astray. I can think of two I didn't enjoy as much as the others, but Donoghue's breadth and variety astonished me, and it left me as eager to finish each story as I was to start the next one.

Favorite passage: "Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch: my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, with more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same." (from the author's note)

The verdict: While I typically prefer novels to short stories, I also adore fiction based on real people. The threads of history and strong thematic elements of travel, wandering and displacement that run through this collection made it cohesive. Donoghue's writing shines as much as her research. Although a couple of stories failed to enchant me, I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 30, 2012
Source: publisher via Elle magazine (look for my comments in the January 2013 issue!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Astray from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I LOVE Donoghue, and want to get the chance to read this one when I can. When a short story collection is good, it can knock my socks off, and the fact that the author has notes at the end of every story intrigues me. Very nice review today!

  2. Hrm -- I'll get this but I'm not rushing for it -- I prefer her historical fiction really but I do love -- like top ten of my life -- her Kissing the Witch -- interconnected short stories type things!

  3. This sounds like a great collection! I loved Room and would love to read more of Donoghue's work. These stories (and the writing in them) sound lovely, and I'm intrigued that they are rooted in the lives of real people.

  4. SOLD! I'm a big Donoghue fan ever since I read her collection, Kissing the Witch, and of course ROOM. Will definitely be looking for this one.

  5. Sounds like it might be more valuable as a look into an author's mind than as a collection of short stories.


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