Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher/Year: Virago, 2000

You may get the impression from one glance at the cover of Slammerkin that it is a bodice-ripping historical romance with more heated sex than one can handle. But first impressions can be wrong, and indeed they are in this case. For sure, there is indeed much sex within Emma Donoghue’s novel but it is anything but heated. And there is some bodice-ripping but not for reasons or exploitive plot points as one may suspect or expect. No, Slammerkin (slang for loose women or loose clothes) is a story that uses sex as the catalyst for demonstrating the damaging impacts of an ego indulged. Such is not the fodder for your typical romance novel.

Emma Donoghue based the novel on the true story of Mary Saunders, a young servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. All that is know about Mary’s life comes from snippets of information that Donoghue fastens together with great care. She deftly intertwines the real with the imagined to produce a vibrant, mesmerizing novel that leaves the reader wanting more and simultaneously wanting it to be over.

Slammerkin is staged during the last two years of Mary’s life. It all begins simply enough, with young Mary wishing for a different social station than that provided by her mother and stepfather. Mary’s is a poor existence, circumstances she bitterly notices are in direct opposition to her ambitions and want for the finer things.

Mary becomes fascinated with the local harlots, whose colorful clothing and perceived freedom represent her deepest desires. It is through her romanticized fascination with these ‘slammerkins’ that Mary begins to covet that which is seemingly out of her reach, specifically a shiny red ribbon worn by one of the harlots. Driven by her desire to have her own red ribbon, Mary decides to give into a peddler’s demand for a kiss in order to obtain this ribbon. It is an ultimately disastrous decision, setting into motion Mary’s expulsion from her family home, unqualified disownment and eventually, death.

Once on the streets, Mary is taken in by Doll Higgins, the same prostitute Mary used to watch. Doll teaches Mary how to earn the money necessary to buy whatever she wants. Faced with little prospects, Mary does as Doll instructs and becomes a slammerkin.

It is far from an idyllic life for Mary but she learns to be self-sufficient and learns the value of appearance in getting what one wants and needs. Eventually Mary is taken into a religious home for wayward girls and attempts to restore her life to one of virtue. The life offered by the home is at first welcomed but then disdained as its rules and confinements restrict the freedom Mary had when she was a “Miss”.

Mary escapes from the house and soon conspires to make her way to Monmouth, her mother’s childhood home. Through some deception, Mary becomes a maid and seamstress to Jane Jones. Yet again, Mary finds her attempts at redemption suffocating and she is soon back to her street ways. Her deceptions start to unravel and old desires resurface, trapping Mary with no escape other than murder.

Slammerkin is a strange and compelling read. Donoghue does not romanticize Mary’s life or the events that marked her troubled existence. There is a rawness to Donoghue’s writing, most especially in dealing with Mary’s abortion and subsequent harlot life, that is at times difficult to digest. Though her writing is unforgivingly real, Donoghue also infuses a surprising tenderness that compels the reader to constantly shift their perception of Mary from heroine to victim, transgressor to transgressed and back again.

As such, this is not a novel that one wants to read but rather, one that you want to consume. It is both fascinating and depressing, a testament to Donoghue’s skill as an author and as a storyteller. Slammerkin is an exercise in managing a conflict of emotions that is not unlike that experienced by Mary herself, both in the real and the fictional realms. And this ability to make the reader reflect on their own lives through Mary’s experiences is the defining quality that makes Slammerkin a most rewarding literary encounter.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this was a wonderful book as well and it started me on a Victoriana trek.