Sunday, September 8, 2013

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

A poor young woman from the 18th century doesn’t have a lot of choices

Mary Saunders, our heroine, a young girl from Georgian London, loves fancy clothes. Her desire for a scarlet ribbon radically changes her life. A stinky old peddler tricks her into trading her virginity, not for the longed for red ribbon, but for a brown one. Once Mary is revealed to be pregnant, her mother tosses her from the house. That night she is raped by a gang of soldiers and is taken in by the generous street whore Doll. What will Mary do for money? She has very little choice but to become a prostitute.

I kept trying to figure out why this book was such a chore to read, even though the prose was of high caliber, and the supporting characters were distinct and entertaining. The researched historical details fit skillfully into the story and were not at all distracting. So why didn’t I like it? Was it because Mary was not very nice? Was it because she was somewhat passive? Or was it because some of Mary’s most important actions not feel quite supported or motivated? Maybe it because the Prologue lets us know that Mary is doomed from the get go so why bother caring?

There wasn’t a lot of interiority in this book, just scene after scene where one awful thing after another happens to Mary. The section that held my interest was when Mary, without undergoing genuine repentance and only to escape a cold winter on the streets, finds shelter in a Magdalene house. There she finds out she is skilled at sewing and gets a glimmer of what life off the streets might be like. But she can’t take the subservient respectability and asks to be released. She puts on a mask and pretends to be good (and at times seems like she might actually commit to being good) but mostly she despises the other characters. This contempt might have been the stumbling block for me.

A couple of plot twists needed to move the story along felt unrealistic. The first one has her flee London, the second seals her doom. While I cared about many of the supporting characters, I did not really care what happened to Mary.  I watched with a horrified semi fascination.

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