by Emma Donoghue $25.99; Little, Brown and Company; 275 pages
The lady in the picture was wearing the biggest scowl you'd ever seen.
The photo was taken long ago and it made you wonder what happened that day to make her so snarly. Was there a death, lost crops, an accident or bad weather, or did the photographer make her angry?
You'll never know but you wonder, just like the portrait makes you wonder about her life. And in the new book Astray, a collection of short stories by Emma Donoghue, imagination becomes possibility.
Perhaps the woman in the picture had just gotten out of bed. It was her third time rising that day, but she had to do what she could to keep a roof over her head and food in her child's belly. Not even 30 years old, she felt worn, detesting her situation, loving her family. She hated her life but "she wouldn't swap it for any other."
Or, as you'll see in "The Widow's Cruse," the scowling woman could've been on her way to meet her lawyer. Newly widowed by a smallpox plague, she was frightened and unsure. She feared destitution. Her lawyer should have feared her.
Maybe the woman was escaping. In the photograph, she appeared to be white, but that doesn't mean anything. A man who's cruel to his slaves can be cruel to his wife, too. Or perhaps she was escaping to another country, making a journey with her children to join a husband who was never going to meet her at any pier.
It's possible, too, that the woman was scowling because she met a man who'd never love her. When men team up to seek fortune and pan for gold, they often forget that Yukon winters can be long and ferociously cold. Men do things to stay warm and sane. When that happens, women are mostly forgotten.
And then again, that woman you see scowling in the picture? There's something about her that you just can't quite figure out. Maybejust maybe, as you'll see in "Daddy's Girl"she's not really a woman, down deep.
Astray is written with a great premise: take an old newspaper article, story, fictional tale, or even a passing mention from any source, and imagine how that single episode in someone's life might have actually happened.
It sounds like a seventh-grade writing assignment, but in Donoghue's hands, it works to a level of impressiveness.
Moving through the centuries with her short stories, Donoghue turns everyday situations and period-piece slice-of-life situations into something of which O. Henry and Paul Harvey would be proud. Indeed, some of these tales start with a little sleight of word, poking our emotions in one way, then slowly twisting them into another direction before giving us the real story. You never know where these tales will end, and that's a good thing.
My only complaint about this book is that it didn't last long enough. I wanted more, and if that's the kind of book you have to have, then Astray is one to picture yourself reading.
Want more? Then look for Room: A Novel and Slammerkin, both by Donoghue.