Carl R.'s Reviews > Slammerkin

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
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May 08, 2012

really liked it
Read in May, 2009

Same old story. I go to the library looking for one book and end up with another. This time it was Emma Donoghue’s Slammmerkin as a substitute for her The Sealed Letter. I still don’t know much about The Sealed Letter, but I found out something about Donoghue, and it’s mostly good stuff.
“Slammerkin,” according to one of the main characters in this historical novel (18th C. England) is a term for a part of a gown (a part I’m not clear about. I got lost in the description of the stitchery.) as well as a slang term for a prostitute. It seems like an apt term, since these women get slammed around in any manner of different ways, literally and figuratively.
There’s nothing here at first that we don’t find in the standard Dickensian mean streets--poverty, filth, rats, brutality, class oppression. The only thing missing is a debtor’s prison. There’s a lot more sex, of course, since this is the twenty-first century, and we need plenty of that. For a time, I found nothing remarkable. Donoghue tells an absorbing tale and I cared enough about “Little Nell” (actually, Mary Saunders) to keep going despite the derivative nature of the whole thing.
After a while, though, it began to dawn on me that this ruined maid is not entirely a victim. In fact, she is largely the author of her own not-at-all-admirable tale. She has talents and opportunities but ... well, I’m going to give away too much if I go down that road. Let’s just say she makes what modern convention likes to call unfortunate choices.
Donoghue evokes the historical period admirably. I do find an excess of “explaining.” She creates situations where a “local” gives longish lectures on language and customs with which the main character is ostensibly unfamiliar but which facts are really intended for the reader. I would have liked some these to be introduced more organically. A small flaw, perhaps, but a significant one.
According to the author’s afterword, the story is tangentially based on actual historical characters, which goes to show that you can rip a great story from the headlines even if the headlines are a few centuries old. I’m sure I’ll get to The Sealed Letter one of these days and be the better for it. In the meantime, I applaud the success of this Irish-born, Canadian-residing author and thank her for the good read.
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