Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Why are writers of historical fiction so drawn to prostitutes? Or is it some strange selection process of my own? Because I can think of four at least in my own recent reading: Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, The Linnet Bird, and now Slammerkin. I knew from the book blurb, of course, what this protagonist’s career path was going to be, but somehow it wasn’t until the first few descriptions of her ‘at work’ that I felt strongly that I had already read all this–or near enough–and that for all that it sounded so promising (especially because I have heard such interesting things about Donoghue, though admittedly in the context of her other works), this novel was not going to surprise me by offering a new idea about it all, or even an especially gripping account. Mary Saunders never became a fully realized character for me; she seemed inconsistent, and once in a while said or did things that seemed like deliberate efforts to make the book more serious and thematically rich–but when you are struck with something as an effort, of course the implication is that the effort is not successful, or the whole would be better integrated, more compelling. It still seems like a very good idea to put a story like this together “from the headlines,” as it were, and I thought the fabric / clothing motif had great potential, but again, it was brought up intermittently in a way that seemed effortful rather than inevitable. Mary’s fate would have made first-person narration a bit problematic, perhaps (“as told to”?), but as the novel stands it suffers from uneven handling of point of view. Most of it, including the entire first section, is from Mary’s, but in the second part, for no apparent reason we begin to get different perspectives. The result is a diffusion of our sympathy and attention–not that Abi, for instance, doesn’t (again) have a lot of potential as a character, but why in this novel? Just because it’s interesting to get in some material about black people in 18th-century England? One final comment is that the great novel about a woman on the make in 18th C England has surely already been written (Moll Flanders): I didn’t see any evidence that Donoghue had looked to this obvious predecessor for the spirit or flavour of her own, markedly humourless version.

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