That Mary Saunders, the plucky and restless anti-heroine of Slammerkin tells us right away that she has ended up at the gallows, should have been an indication that this novel was going to rush towards tragedy. Still, with images of Moll Flanders in my mind, gallant rescues and a new life in the colonies, I couldn't help but hope that Mary's story would end somewhat happily, as compensation for an unfair life. I hoped that maybe she'd become the best dressmaker in London and all her dreams would be fulfilled!
That fantasy is not this novel. In fact, Emma Donoghue based the book on a real life case from 1763. Further distancing itself from Moll Flanders, etc., the main character, as much as you pity her circumstances that lead her to a life as a dolled up prostitute, is not entirely likable. She bites and hisses when she should appreciate and she runs away to my utter frustration from all the chances she has of getting her s— together. Of course, this doesn't make her any less intriguing and the book is a near page turner.
It's a rougher book than one might expect from the stock “historical fiction” cover. The alleyway sex is explicit, almost like an exploitation movie set in the late 1800's, and not for the squeamish. The characters' lives do not follow romantic story arches. This sets this novel apart and was at first surprising for me as I (as I often do unwisely) went into it with Masterpiece Theater expectations. Go into it without those expectations and enjoy a tale about a dark and troubled young woman.