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Review: Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

Mary Saunders has always longed for luxury.  Born to working-class parents, she lives with her mother, step-father, and baby half-brother in a basement in lower-class eighteenth century England.  Though she is somewhat educated, she really has only two options in life; sewing, like her mother, or service.  Mary rebels and loses her virginity, health, and respectability for a single red ribbon, falling into a life of prostitution and alcoholism.  Based on the story of a maid who killed her mistress for a beautiful dress, Mary’s story is heartbreaking but surprisingly compelling and evocative of her time.

I will admit that I struggled with this book in the beginning.  Mary was extremely difficult to care about.  She is so frivolous that she covets the lifestyle of a prostitute just so she can have pretty clothes.  Her sojourn in a rehabilitation facility and later time with the Jones family both open her eyes a little to the respectability of honest work, but her craving for luxury undoes her good intentions every time.  It is something that is a little mystifying, especially given when she sees how the Joneses have worked up the career ladder to a life which she craves.

On the other hand, however, she is a very well-rounded character.  Frustrating as she is, it’s easy to see how her childhood, friendships, and longings translate into the way she lives her life.  Surprisingly we can see how prostitution does suit her, creepy as that feels.  She seems to enjoy her power over men while reveling in the fact that she can buy beautiful clothes and spend most of her time laughing and drinking with her prostitute friends.  It’s only when she gets seriously ill that she has to pursue ways of healing and thinks about where she has gone wrong.

This is, unfortunately, an unrelentingly negative book.  We learn that Mary is in prison in the first few pages and then are sent back to figure out how she got there.  Even when happier things happen in her life, the reader is always aware that they aren’t going to last.  I had a span of about 10 pages where I loved the book; I thought Mary’s life was going to take a turn for the better.  I had been struggling with the book and then I fell in love.  I fell out of love about as quickly and finished it more because I had to than because I wanted to.  It was just so depressing and Mary’s obsession with money, escape, and luxury became all-consuming even though she was perhaps the happiest she’d ever been in her life.

This is a story about a girl who makes very poor choices, all of which catch up to her in the end.  Knowing that from the beginning makes this a challenge, but it is still an excellent book for its portrayal of eighteenth century London, the countryside, and the insights into Mary’s mind.  In startling contrast to most historical fiction which focuses on the wealthy and privileged, I do think this book is worth reading.

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14 comments to Review: Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

  • I have had this book on my radar for about a year. Thank you for this thoughtful review. I do think I’ll be reading it, but I can be better prepared for when I read it.

  • Eva

    I’ve avoided this one because it always sounded too depressing. So I’m glad to read your review. :)

  • Pam

    I’ve definitely read other reviews about the wet blanket effect. Sometimes writers pull off the doom and gloom and sometimes it just fails. sorry it failed!

  • The book sounds interesting, but I have to be in the right mood to read a book that’s so negative.

  • sounds like a tough read and I appreciate your review.

  • I have a strange relationship with this book. I agree with everything you’ve said, but I’ve read it twice and will probably read it a third time. It’s a difficult book to like, but there’s something about it that just won’t let me leave it alone.

  • Your review has me thinking. I’ll have to take a look at this when I’m at the library, but I’m not sure it will be my first choice.

  • I remember hearing about this book quite a while ago and thinking I wanted to read it. Then I promptly forgot about it. You’ve reminded me about it with your review. It does sound like a difficult book but definitely one worth reading. Thanks for your great review, Meghan!

  • Sorry that this book was not a hands-down winner for you. I read it several years ago and really thought it had a great historical atmosphere. I do agree that it was rather depressing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

  • SPOILERS –for anyone reading this

    This is perhaps the only book I didn’t finish, even though I only had 50 pages left. I was just so disgusted with her. It was after I thought she was shaping up to be a good character…and then she started to slip up bad. So I did something I never do. I looked at the last few pages…and realized she was never going to change. So with 50 pages left I discarded the book. Sigh.

  • Hmm. I like the concept, but the fact that it’s sooo negative really puts me off. I’d rather have something with a more uplifting storyline. Sure, it may be based on an actual historical figure; but I bet that maid had a life that wasn’t this bad.

  • This has been a favourite book of mine for close to 8 years now! It saddens me to see you call it negative. I can appreciate why you might find it a tough read; however, for anyone with an interest in 18th century history, this is a wonderful read of the time. Corruption, poverty, and sexuality was rampant in the 18th C and Donoghue portrays this often immoral world wonderfully. Yes, Mary’s life is a hard one, and a tragic one, but in a time where you often had no choice but to become part of this corrupt world in order to survive, I feel much sympathy for the young girl. I recommend this read to anyone!

    • Meghan

      That’s pretty much what I was trying to get across; it’s very depressing and sad but it is IMO a very accurate picture of what a poor 18th century girl would have had to deal with. I guess I didn’t do a very good job!

  • Meow

    This book effected me so much, mary saunders i think is the most unfortunate heroine that i’ve ever red.