Fourteen tales of people cut loose from their roots—voluntarily or not.
It’s characteristic of the restless Donoghue to follow up a terrifying contemporary thriller and international best-seller (Room, 2010, etc.) with a collection of historical fiction. Past and present have held equal sway over her imagination in previous work, and three story collections have showcased her abundant gifts as aptly as her seven novels. This book demonstrates once again that there’s little she can’t do well; indeed, the afterword is as moving as the stories. Donoghue offers her own biography—Irish-born, Cambridge-educated, longtime resident in Canada—to explain her fascination with other wanderers trying to invent new lives for themselves. She can empathize with a Victorian Londoner forced into prostitution (“Onward”) as well as with a buccaneering cheat who fraudulently obtains her husband’s fortune and skips out of 18th-century New York (“The Widow’s Cruse”). The gruff friendship-with-benefits of two gold prospectors in the Yukon (“Snowblind”) is portrayed as tenderly as the marriage of two refugees from the Irish potato famine, thwarted of their reunion in Canada (“Counting the Days”). The collection’s most wrenching tale, “The Gift,” achieves the remarkable feat of bringing alive both the agony of a woman driven by poverty to give up her baby and the quiet dignity of the girl’s adoptive father—in an exchange of letters, no less. Donoghue views her characters with determined generosity, even when their behavior is reprehensible: The first-person narratives of a vengeful Puritan settler in Cape Cod (“The Lost Seed”) and a thoughtless white girl on a Louisiana plantation (“Vanitas”) trace complicated motives and a desperation for love of which the protagonists may not even be aware. The short story can be a precious, self-enclosed form, but in Donoghue’s bold hands, it crosses continents and centuries to claim kinship with many kinds of people.
Another exciting change of pace from the protean Donoghue.