Emma Donoghue has written a highly entertaining novel. I read Slammerkin recently, but have waited to talk about it because I wanted to express my opinion of the book in a better way than "I loved it! You have to read this book because it is soooo good!"
It IS a good book, but it is much more than that.
The word Slammerkin is a noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. a loose gown. 2. A loose woman. The novel begins:
"The ribbon had been bright scarlet when Mary first laid eyes on it, back in London."
The book chronicles with careful presentation the physical details which are not tedious, but serve to make the story rich. Psychological detail is gleaned from the use of the third person subjective point of view. We get into the main character's head and see things from her vantage point, but also we learn a bit from the other characters as well, making for an exceptionally well-covered tale. This story is based on a real case from the same time and place, where not many details are known.
Mary Saunders is a girl of thirteen when the novel opens, set in London in 1760. Her family consists of her step-father, a coalman, and her mother, who takes in patchwork sewing. Her father was a cobbler but died while in gaol - English for jail - where he was thrown after daring to protest against the king.
Her dead father's wishes were for Mary to attend school, and her mother keeps this promise even though they all think the girl old enough to work and help supplement the family's income. She is bored with school, and wants none of what her future seems to hold. She hates the family's dark flat, in a dingy corner of a dirty street. She wants a better life. A cleaner, brighter life than what she knows awaits her.
Mary wants to grow beyond her station in life, she wants to excel, and she wants to experience fabulous clothes. In 18th century London there wasn't much hope for a change in one's station. The class you were born into was where you stayed. Society in Mary's time left no room for abilities or aspiration. The punishment for sins were great. If you were accused of stealing you could be assured of hanging. A rich person's word was worth far more than a servant's. Jails housed inmates in pitiful conditions; workhouses were places you went to die. Judgments were harsh and plenty; forgiveness and trust, spare.
One day an event happens to Mary that changes her life, sets her out on her own. Still a young girl, she has to find her way all alone in a dangerous, uncaring city. That's when things gets interesting.
Everything about London is dark, dirty, dingy. There are pockets of brightness and color, but only briefly and certainly not for the poor. The story elucidates Mary's dreams and ambition enough that hopes rise in the reader that they might allow her to rise above her station and achieve great things, somehow. If there's a way, we are sure that Mary can find it. It's interesting that the thing that gives her money also constrains her. Instead of giving her freedom, it is just another station in life. Is it better than being a patchwork sewer like her mother? Were there any other options available to a young, pregnant girl?
I like this sentence:
"All in all, Abi was glad she'd told this old story. It made it smaller, she found, to wrap it in words and fold it away."
The series of events that follow are believable, if shocking. They are inevitable, although I have to say I didn't know the book would end this way. Emma Donoghue captures the truth of the character of Mary Saunders. I believed Mary would act and think the way she did from the realistic way it was written. All throughout the book and the events that befall Mary, we are reminded that she is still a child. A child of thirteen at the beginning of the story. It is amazing to think of all this hard life happening to a girl of this age. Her resilience is real; her flaws and decisions completely appropriate.
Isn't this true for all of us:
"It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst of oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness."
Mary's early lessons are to never give up your liberty, clothes make the woman, and clothes are the greatest lie ever told. Going back to the opening line, the use of the color scarlet, first used to describe the ribbon, is then a metaphor for desire both sweet and lustful; for life, both lived and lost. Of course, it's also the color of blood, the very color of life.
The author obviously has done her research into the historical aspect of life in London and England in that period. Without taking a didactic tone she manages to use the terms for things during that time period quite effortlessly. The amount of detail in setting up for us the setting of everyday life leaves even the darkest corner of squalid London a sumptuous picture against which the events unfold.
In the end I come back to offering you this: read this book. It is so, so good.