It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.
That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.
This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.
It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.
This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.