"Strangers might remember a trip to Monmouth to see a girl hang, but who would spare a thought for the whos and hows and whys?" Mary Saunders asks herself on the way to the scaffold. Emma Donoghue has taken the scant facts of Mary's short life in the 1760s and given her heart, flesh, guts and humour in this fine tale. Mary, at 13, seduced by an impulse for a coloured ribbon, and dreams of silks and sashes--as well as longings to better herself--becomes a slammerkin, a loose woman, in the roil of Hogarthian London. Her friend and mentor into the world of tricks is Doll who knows every inch of the city's high and low life. When Mary finds her dead, she flees to Monmouth and tries to reinvent herself as a servant girl. But the chafes of servitude and of "knowing her place" lead to a double life, a brutal murder, and her end at 16.
No rags to riches tale here, but nor does the author allow the brutal circumstances of Mary's life to swamp her colourful and richly textured narrative. Mary is full of spark and cheek; her eye is sharp to the hypocrisies of privilege and religion, her speech deliciously expresses her disdain for her "betters". Only occasionally does the narrative slip into too much telling at the expense of showing, and thus loses some of its emotional impact and pace.
That said, Emma Donoghue's gifts as a storyteller are considerable: her unsparing accounts of small and large events, a wealth of detail and a wonderfully rich and fluent language makes this a vivid and moving slice from the underbelly of 18th-century life.--Ruth Petrie
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From Publishers Weekly
Donoghue takes scraps of the intriguing true story of Mary Saunders, a servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763, and fashions from them an intelligent and mesmerizing historical novel. Born to a mother who sews for pennies and a father who died in jail, 14-year-old Mary's hardened existence in London brings to mind the lives of Dickens's child characters. Mary has an eye for fine things and ambitions beyond her social station, and her desire for a shiny red ribbon leads her to sell the only thing she owns: her body. Turned out by her mother, Mary is taken in by a local prostitute, Doll Higgins; they live together in Rat's Castle in the seedy section of town. Doll teaches Mary the tricks of her trade and gives her all the gaudy dresses Mary once coveted. For a year, the term slammerkin meaning a loose gown or a loose woman becomes all too familiar to Mary, until she checks into a charity hospital and attempts to straighten out. Missing the "liberty" of her former life, she leaves the hospital only to encounter more trouble back on the streets. Fleeing to the country village of Monmouth, her parents' hometown, Mary finds Mrs. Jones, an old friend of her mother's, and obtains a maid's position in her household, but Mary can't shake her dark ambitions: she re-enters the flesh trade, bringing disaster upon herself. Readers may feel both sympathetic to and angry with Mary, who questions whether hers is the lot of all women, but whose anesthetized spirit leads to her rash action. Donoghue's characterizations are excellent, and her brutal imagery and attention to language capture the spirit of the time with vital precision. Agent, Caroline Davidson. (June)Forecast: The provocative jacket will catch readers' attention, but attentive handselling, perhaps helped by the author tour, will be required to distinguish this worthy historical novel from similar titles.
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