Irish writer Emma Donoghue's first novel, "Room," was the stunning story of a young woman held captive in a bunker by a rapist who fathers a child; the story is told through the little boy's eyes and was nothing short of fascinating.
Donoghue draws from historical records for each of the stories — census data, letters and diaries, newspaper reports, poems — then spins each into a piece of fiction. In every case, mysteries remain unsolved, or a happy outcome is tantalizingly out of reach.
One story, "Onward," is set in London in 1854. A young woman and her brother try to hang onto their tenuous grasp of the middle class as she entertains two or three "visitors" each day to pay the bills. Caroline's toddler daughter is the outcome of one such visitor; Caroline's brother urges her to appeal to a "very distinguished gentleman" for assistance in getting a fresh start. Donoghue's postscript identifies their benefactor as Charles Dickens, who did indeed provide financial assistance to help such cases escape their circumstances.
The collection's first story, "Men and Boys," is narrated by a zookeeper who tries to convince Jumbo the elephant to get inside a huge crate for transport to America and P.T. Barnum's circus. "Daddy's Girl" is told by a young woman whose father's death reveals a startling, and thoroughly shocking, secret.
"The Gift" is a heartbreaking series of letters between an impoverished young widow who must leave her baby girl with the New York Children's Aid Society in 1877, and the Iowa couple who adopts the baby and makes her their own. Each party pleads their case with the society over a 20-year period.
Perhaps the most haunting of the stories is "The Hunt," based on historical records of a Revolutionary War incident in which women and girls were rounded up and sexually assaulted in Hopewell, N.J. A 15-year-old German boy forced to serve in the British army befriends a young farm girl but knows within himself that ultimately he will have to lead her to his barracks. The story touches on a number of issues which continue to resonate in the modern world: the ongoing use of rape as in instrument of war, child soldiers, and the seeming inescapability of victims and victimizers.
Donoghue's genius in this collection is her ability to capture the voice of each protagonist, speaking in the time-specific vernacular of eras spanning four centuries.
The collection closes with a long afterword in which Donoghue goes beyond the brief footnote that follows each story to explain in greater detail her writing process.
Each of the five narrators (plus Donoghue herself) brings excellence to their various characters. This may well be a collection best heard as discrete stories rather than as a longer listening session, as the changing circumstances of each can be a bit jarring from one tale to the next.