Thursday, February 21, 2013

Slammerkin - Emma Donaghue

I was pretty pleased when I heard our book club selected this novel for our January read.  After all, wasn't "Room" amazing and clever and unlike anything you'd ever quite read before?

Alrighty then!  It took only about 20 pages to realize this was no "Room".  The first thing I had to do was look up what a "Slammerkin" actually was (a term used for a "loose dress" as well as a "loose woman").  I was plunged into the mid-1700's, so...historical fiction?  Not at all what I was expecting, but why not?

Synopsis:  Mary Saunders was born into a working-class family in the mid-1700's, daughter of a seamstress and a step-father that didn't pay her much attention.  Mary was always one to admire quality clothing and finery, and was convinced it would be her ticket to a better life.  Unfortunately, her desire for a pretty red bow led her down a path of no return, and at the age of 14 was on the streets, earning her living as a prostitute so she could possess these clothes.  An unfortunate set of events sends her scurrying to her mother's childhood home of Monmouth, where a few well-selected lies land her a job as a seamstress for a dress shop owned by a respectable middle-class family.  Mary's ambition cannot be tamed, however, and despite a new start with a new life, she turns back to old habits, and it ultimately leads to her undoing.  

Loosely based on a true story, the author departs her regularly-traveled path deep into historical fiction.  Rich in texture with intricate detail provided on the underbelly of London in the 1700's, class, race and gender stratification, and fashion, Donaghue has obviously done her homework and brings it to life for the reader.  She also leads us by the hand to the dark side of ambition, greed, narcissism and their consequences.

My thoughts:  Whatever I thought I was getting with this book, it wasn't this.  To this moment, I am still not completely sure if I liked it or not.  Let me try to explain.

On the positive side, the setting is incredibly real.  If you were ever a geek like me and wished you could time travel back to this period, this is your chance.  It isn't always pleasant, granted, but the filth, the depravity, the rats, the diseases, public hangings, the boarding houses, the drunks looking for a quick trick in a dark, reeking alley...you are there.  What magnified these images for me was seeing "Les Miserables", and the prostitutes in that movie.  Time periods were slightly different, and the cities were different, but that was how I imagined it.  This part of the book was enthralling.

In the first half of the book, the story is narrated by Mary.  So we are only getting her side of the story.  Still, even in her own words, girlfriend is not all that likable.  She is immature, self-absorbed, and superficial.  But she is scrappy, and one small part of me admired her pluck.  She was a survivor if nothing else.

In the second half of the book, once Mary escapes to Monmouth, the narrative opens up and we get some other perspectives from characters within Mary's toxic orbit.  For me, the clouds parted and we see her for the despicable bitch that she is.  With the swish of a hip or the purse of her lips, she would ruin the most decent person's life for the betterment or pleasure of herself.  It wasn't hard to figure out what her fate would be, and that was just fine by me.  

At the end, I was also left feeling empty-handed.  I wasn't sure what the bigger message was here, except that maybe...Karma is ruthless?  Bad decisions have consequences?  There are other things more important than pretty clothes?  It was a page-turning read, absolutely, with plenty of stomach-turning descriptions, lewd behavior, and colorful characters.  But the complete package lacked something important.  I also finished the story feeling...slimy and unsettled.  

So did I like it?  It was compelling.  The period was fascinating.  But I was glad to move on after it was over.

3 out of 5 stars

      

16 comments:

Jackie Bailey said...

This sounds exactly like my review for The Sealed Letter! ...Thought Room was amazing... hoping for greatness... very disappointed. :-( Thanks for letting me know I should avoid this one too.

caite said...

I am not a big fan of historical fiction to start with..
I think I will stick with my happy memories of Room.

caite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh, don't mention Les Miserables - I think I have to start crying again! LOLOL

Ti said...

Historical Fiction is hit or miss with me. My club read this book as a "side" book when it didn't get picked but I skipped it. It didn't sound like my thing at all but they loved it! They also loved Room which I did not.

Darlene said...

I haven't read this but a while back I had read about it somewhere and people either liked it or didn't. The story line interests me and so does the fact that its historical fiction but with so many other books calling my name I'm not sure I'd take the time with this one.

Jaime Boler said...

I loved Slammerkin, but then again, I'm a big fan of historical fiction.

Charlie (The Worm Hole) said...

As much as it sounds horrible, your description of filthy London has me wanting to read it, I love getting lost in history. Sounds like the plot goes the way it "ought" to though, which is generally a good thing.

bermudaonion said...

When Heather and I met Emma Donaghue at SIBA a few years ago, Heather was so excited to meet her because of this book. I'd never heard of it until then. I haven't been eager to pick it up since I don't love historical fiction. Your review makes me even less anxious to read it.

Jenners said...

I had this on my "to read eventually" list because I've heard raves about it. But now you have me wondering. I'm not a HF reader at the best of times...

Melissa said...

I've had this book on my shelf for literally years, but may be skipping it now.

Beth F said...

YOu're not making me want to pick this up!

Meg @ write meg! said...

Very interesting and fun review! I'd never heard of Slammerkin, actually, though I read Room with the rest of the known universe. Without a take-away message, I could see this one falling a little flat for me . . .

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I tried to read this one while in college and couldn't get into it. I obviously missed book club so didn't read it this time around either. It's still one I'm considering picking up but I don't know ...

Jenny said...

I read this years ago when it first came out (my first book by Donaghue) and loved it but really don't remember. Thing about it. I wonder what I would think if I read it now? I still have my copy... Ill have to re-read it one of these days.

Kathleen said...

I still need to read Room and I rushed out to buy it right as it became all the rage. I'm so behind...