Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Not for the faint of heart, this book is fast-paced, gripping, and quite sad. But I guess the life of a teenage prostitute wouldn't be anything else. I had no idea this was based on a true story! I'm already a fan of historical fiction, but knowing these were actual people and actual events heightened the emotion and made it much more compelling and interesting to read.

Mary Saunders came from a broken, working-class background and was kicked out of the house at thirteen for becoming pregnant. The pregnancy, of course, was not her wish or fault but the result of her naturally immature judgment; she wanted a red ribbon but didn't have enough money to pay for it, so the seller suggested she offer herself instead . . . There's a reason it's called statutory rape in today's world.

And thus begins her slide into self destruction as so often follows abuse and abandonment. The street smarts needed to survive become quickly ingrained at such a young age and hard to shake, even when circumstances improve. In Mary's case, she tries, and succeeds, for a time anyway, to work as a seamstress's apprentice in a small town far away from the streets of London. Things seem to be going well until her old survival instincts and habits resurface. A rash decision leads to a snap judgment, which then leads to less than wise actions and then to the collapse of her carefully constructed safety net. She couldn't win for losing.

On a side note, this book strikes a personal nerve for me. I used to volunteer at a group home for homeless teenage mothers and would see this cycle of self-sabotaging behavior over and over again. Many of the girls just didn't really believe they could make it. They would try and try and try to better their lives but somehow kept slipping back into old survival habits that had perhaps served them once but were really not healthy or sustainable or appropriate anymore. It was heartbreaking to watch them come so close to success only to have it dissolve at their fingertips. There were a good number of successes, though, too. Girls who went on to finish their education, get jobs and support themselves and their babies were so inspiring. Overcoming the cycle of abuse and abandonment is an incredible feat for someone only on the planet for less than twenty years.

Anyway, enough rambling. It's a good book and well worth a read.

Mary remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets of London: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. (inside flap)

Those stony eyes softened a little. The Matron pulled her chair nearer and leaned over her desk. 'Mary,' she murmured as if imparting a secret. 'I know you to be a young woman of great capacities. Your education is solid, your wits are original, and your will is strong. In less than two months, with my own eyes I have seen you blossom into a seamstress of remarkable skill. But still a shadow hangs over you. pg91

The girl remembered London as a place of infinite freedom. Now it seemed she'd rented out her whole life to the Joneses in advance. Service had reduced her to a child, put her under orders to get up and lie down at someone else's whim; her days were spent obeying someone else's rules, working for someone else's profit. Nothing was Mary's anymore. Not even her time was hers to waste. pg163

Something else Mary was learning: what mattered just as much as what someone wore was how they carried it off. The best silk sack gown could be ruined on a stooping, countryish customer. It was all in the gaze, the stance, the set of the shoulders. Mary set herself to learning how to move as if the body - in all its damp indignity - was as sleek and upright as the dress. pg166

Mary didn't know it before, but she was in fact sorry. Strangely sorry for all she was and ever would be, for all she'd done and left undone and never would do. For the way she'd been given a second chance at ordinary life and crushed it underfoot. pg257


Beth said...

I found her book Room fascinating – it wasn’t for the faint of heart either.
I’ll give this one a try.

Laura said...

I love Emma Donoghue, and while I'm not so much a fan of Historical Fiction, this does sound pretty great, and also Emma Donoghue! So I'm sure I'll get round to reading it someday.