not my best title, it’s true- but also not the best collection. I picked this up while looking for different work from Donoghue, and while it was not what I wanted it was a (mostly) pleasant way to spend my time. The idea is cool; this collection is filled with (often very) short stories divided into three “chapters”: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. Each story is set in a different time; most are within the 19th century, but two creep into the 20th and some of the best are tucked far back into the 17th. Each story is a brief snapshot of a life; we follow elephant trainers, sculptors, soldiers, gold miners, and many other colorful characters as they stake their claims on their corners of history. Each story is followed by a brief entry detailing the actual life or events that inspired the story- leading me down some fascinating (and frequently dark) Wikipedia holes.
Donoghue is often inspired by fairy tale and fable, and often writes in the historical voice, but is probably best well-known for Room. I was not blown away by Room, it fell outside of her usual cannon but stuck tight to one of her common tenets: she can tell stories of woe, horror, despair, and ruin without making the reader want to crawl into a hole to give up. She covers events that sometimes break her characters, but she does so without breaking spirit. I don’t find myself needing a recovery period after finishing one of her pieces, but there were a few stories in this book that certainly pushed the boundaries of hope. There is plenty of starvation, death, and abuse. There is sexual violence galore. She embodies the voices of her characters, slipping into accents, mannerisms, and affects that color them as more than just traumatic sketches…but in one story she took the embodiment too far.
I will not adhere to the adage of one can only write what one knows, or one can only comment on their own experiences, but in the year 2020 I find it impossible to stomach a story written by a white woman in the voice, cadence, and mannerisms of an enslaved black man. Yes, the piece was published in 2012, and yes it is based on a true story (gathered from newspapers at the time), but YIKES. The character’s “first name” (assigned by the man claiming ownership of him) is the n-word, and it is used A LOT. She has him speak in a cartoonish, minstrel show-esque “blaccent”, and it is truly dreadful. It may be a story of hope and survival, but it is bogged down in layers of racism and white savior-dom. There are multiple other stories involving characters from different countries, different backgrounds, and different levels of ability- but none of them are voiced in such a crude, thoughtless, and ignorant manner. The n-word isn’t the only slur used in this book, but it is definitely the worst. It is also not the only slur used as a character’s first name, which, double yikes. People of color were (AND STILL ARE) treated dreadfully throughout history – especially in North America, where most of these stories take place, but one can tell an authentic story without being ignorant at best and willfully hateful at worst.