Sunday 18 March 2018

Delving into history to bring the forgotten back to life

Out of several billion people alive today, few will leave any trace after they are gone. Whatever they felt and did will be lost, unrecorded and unremembered. Emma Donoghue is intrigued by the arbitrariness of this collective amnesia. The trigger for her fiction is an urge to imagine lives for the forgotten, all too aware of the arbitrariness of being born into her own "particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life".

As the title of her collection of short stories implies, the fact-inspired characters she has conjured up, mostly from tantalising passing references in 19th-Century newspaper or magazine reports, are marginalised people who through mischance lost their way or ended up somewhere else.

Having twice left home in Dublin before settling in Canada, she readily empathises with their sense of separation and experience of otherness. Her compassion is contagious. Whether or not their actual lives were even close to the experiences she has bestowed on them, her evocative writing, beautiful in its pared-down clarity, has a ring of truth.

The stories range in time from the perverted scandal-mongering of a self-righteous Puritan in New England in 1639 (The Lost Seed) to the sad dilemma of a couple of elderly ladies in Ontario in 1967 in the early stages of dementia, trying to cling on to memories of their love (What Remains).

It used to be a tradition in Hollywood movies to add 'what happened next' lines to the final credits. Donoghue uses a variant of this by providing an endnote for each story, indicating the source that prompted it. We learn, for instance, that Onward, about a single mother in 1854 supporting a younger brother and small daughter by entertaining male clients in the afternoon, is imagined from an act of kindness recorded in the letters of Charles Dickens. The device provides a recurring motif, which, combined with a framework that groups the stories into three sections -- 'Departures', 'In Transit' and 'Arrivals and Aftermaths' -- makes this a collection best read from start to finish rather than at random.

Each of the stories stands on its own but as sequence they build up an emotional momentum that enhances the impact of some utterly memorable fictions in which voices from the past assume a riveting immediacy.

My favourites apart from The Hunt, a story-telling tour-de-force, are Vanitas for the subtlety with which it brings to life the claustrophobic world of a cosseted Creole girl in Louisiana in 1839, whose innocent curiosity leads to unintended betrayal, and Counting the Days, cross-cutting with agonising inevitability between an apprehensive young wife on an emigrant ship from Belfast to Quebec in 1845 and the husband who has gone out ahead and is waiting for her.

The beauty of Astray, however, is that everyone will have different favourites. As with her play, Talk of the Town, based on the much-overlooked exiled Irish writer Maeve Brennan, and her 2010 novel Room, Donoghue's pursuit of what she terms "a hybrid form of historical fiction" is creating a rich new vein in Irish literature.

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