Tag Archives: emma donoghue

Emma Donoghue — Slammerkin

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.



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Mean girls

So I watched Sky TV’s adaptation of Mark Billingham’s book Sleepyhead but I didn’t like it enough to keep watching, I just wanted to know who the killer was and if I was right in my suspicions (I was). But oh my gosh the book was even worse than the movie, I don’t want to go into too much detail because that’s just mean… I couldn’t even get through the first few pages, it was just so ridiculous, and disappointing! I guess the market saturation of serial killer thrillers means that some crap gets through.

I’m getting back on the reviewing Serious Literature horse once I get around to finishing Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin which is seriously awesome so far (I’m very envious of her ability to switch styles and voices seemingly at will–the fact that she had books like both Room and Slammerkin in her makes me so jealous!) It’s just hard to find the time as the semester goes on. This is my second-to-last semester of law school, so I’ve been trying to get my head around all the deadlines I have for bar exam application and juggle my coursework (I’m writing a short paper for Evidence, and one for my Crime & Community class that only has to be 15 pages, but I already have 46 pages in 10 pt Times New Roman of notes…) and my social life.

It’s so sad, but in weeks like this, I really do miss just being able to relax and curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that isn’t law related without feeling guilty about it.

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Emma Donoghue — Room

Somewhat exhausting to read, Emma Donoghue’s Room (the first of her books that I’ve read but certainly not the last!) is the story of five-year-old Jack and his Ma, a closely knit little family unlike most others… for Jack’s father, who he calls “Old Nick,” has imprisoned Ma in an 11×11 shed that is the only world Jack has ever known, the titular Room.

The novel’s narrator is Jack, and the fact that Donoghue has given him such a believable and unique voice is one of the book’s real triumphs. Jack has known only the room, and only Ma, for his entire short life, and sometimes his words reflect that. They are mostly correct, and he knows vocabulary beyond his years like omnivore, but with the added layers of in-jokes and isolation, sometimes it almost seems like he’s speaking a different language. It’s another way to view, obliquely, the reality of the situation: we hear Ma’s words filtered through Jack’s perception. For him, Room is a comforting place, with toys made of broken eggshells, a track to run around the bed, and friends like Meltedy Spoon to keep him company. To Ma, however, looking up through Skylight only serves to remind her of the freedom that is just out of reach.

Old Nick is a truly vile character, and even though Jack doesn’t understand quite how bad he is, the reader cringes whenever he enters Room, or finding out that he has surrounded the ground underneath the shed with wire fencing, so that Ma can’t even dig her way out.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that the first half of the book takes place in Room, but the major concern is Ma and Jack’s adjustment to the outside world when they do eventually escape. It’s heartbreaking to see Jack reacting so intensely to simple things like rain, bright lights, and stairs. The main concern of the novel is rebuilding, even with the broken and imperfect (but still mostly loving) relationships that Ma had with her family before she was kidnapped. And even characters like Leo the “step grandpa,” whom Ma writes off at the beginning, have their own insight (maybe more so than even Ma and her own mother) into what Jack needs in order to grow past his ordeal. Ma herself is a wonderfully complicated character, damaged by her ordeal but resilient in her love for and desire to protect her son.

All in all I have never quite read a book like this one, and I was really impressed at the way in which Donoghue managed to pull everything together. While some moments might have seemed to stretch one’s disbelief, the human feeling at the heart of all of it was spot on.

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