Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended years ago (I don’t recall where or by whom)  for people who like Sarah Waters’s 19th century novels (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith) of which I am a huge admirer.  I bought a copy of Slammerkin at Emma Donoghue’s book signing at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL this last fall.  It’s one of those books I was saving for when I knew I’d need a good, thickish book to dive into.

I didn’t realize until I was more than halfway through it that Slammerkin is the fictionalized story of the life of a real girl–Mary Saunders–who at 16 or 17 was hanged for a crime she committed in 1764.  As Donoghue explains in her note at the end of the book, not much is known about the real Mary Saunders and I don’t want to give away much about the plot, because, as with most historical fiction, part of the enjoyment is in the unfolding of the story.

Slammerkin is historical fiction at its finest.  It presents what seems to be a realistic picture of the period.  It is a dark book.  The copy that I have is the quality paperback edition with the new cover that came out around the time Donoghue’s Room was published last year.  The blurb near the bottom is from the New York Times Book Review which calls Slammerkin, “A colorful romp of a novel . . . Impossible to resist.”   Colorful, yes (there are many, many wonderful descriptions of clothing from the period and street scenes, along with brief shots of STD infections, abortions, and other un-sanitized realities of 18th century life).  And the novel was impossible for me to resist–I thought about it a lot when I wasn’t reading it and read faster as bed time approached.  But I wouldn’t call it a “romp of a novel.”  Romp implies play and frolicking, not the hardscrabble life of a penniless 14-year old girl who is thrown into the streets of London by her own mother and turns to a life of prostitution.  So if you’re into happy, feel-good historical fiction, this won’t be your cup of tea.

Donoghue presents a decidedly un-romantic version of both city and rural life in 18th century England.  But there are great moments and whole scenes of hope.  Mary Saunders and many of the other characters in the novel are the sort that I found myself alternately cheering on or chastising.  Mary Saunders’s first crime was wanting a better life for herself in a time when people were expected to accept their lot in life.  Liberty, servitude, slavery, class, choice, acceptance, denial, seeing, darkness, ambition, tradition, enlightenment, human nature . . . all of these themes and more are seamlessly woven throughout this 384 page book.

This is the second novel that I’ve read of Donoghue’s and I appreciate her lack of preachiness toward her readers and lack of judgment upon her characters.  She seems to present nothing more than a story laid bare and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.  This is what makes her characters likable in one scene and annoying or disappointing in the next.  They’re all very well rounded characters.

Emma Donoghue
First published by Virago Press, 2000
Edition I read: Mariner Books (ISBN 978-0-15-600747-4)
Source: own it

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