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Slammerkin: Book Review

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue. Image from Amazon.

What’s it about?

London in the eighteenth century was no place to be a poor young girl with high hopes.

Mary Saunders likes fancy clothes. She wants to be rich and fashionable, but as a young girl, she does not realise where her dreams will take her. Plummeting into the world of prostitution at only 13 years old, Mary’s life is soon plagued by disease, debts, and dangers to her very existence.

Escaping to Monmouth, her mother’s hometown, Mary starts a new life as a maid in Mrs Jones’s house. But no matter how much this safety should please her, her hunger for something better never wanes. Her past is catching up with her. Soon, she will discover the cost of desiring what a girl of her class should never dare.

My Thoughts

I read Slammerkin in 4 days whilst on honeymoon. I can only say one thing: I loved it.

I could not describe it as a typical mystery (at the start, we only wonder why she has ended up in prison) and neither could it be termed a thriller, but it was certainly dark and gothic. The era came to life, with pages packed full of delicious descriptions of scary city streets, quaint towns, and gorgeous and garish gowns. A sense of doom seeped through the pages, drawing me in. In many ways an unlikeable character, I found Mary fascinating, funny, soft-hearted, and pitiable. What girl would choose to live a life of poverty in an unloving home? I certainly could not blame her for wanting more – don’t we all?

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. You will step into the slums of London and you will not come out the same. You will route for Mary to overcome her obstacles, all the while knowing it is impossible. The stark reality is brutal in this book, and serves as a reminder for what we have fought for and what we are still fighting for as women in society.

The author note at the end was also interesting. This book was inspired by a real murder on the Welsh Borders in 1763, and the writer has shown us a possible version of why it might have happened. Some other real life characters pop up in this story, and not only does it tackle issues of poverty and female inequality, but also racism and slavery, infant mortality, grief, and the mistreatment by and the hypocrisy of people in positions of power.


There are just so many! But here are a few of my favourites:

“In candlelight she stood as magnificent as ever, but at noon her face hung like pale leather. There were tuppence bunters on the street as old as thirty, Mary knew: one of them was half mad from the mercury she’d taken to cure her syphilitic pox. If you were still there at forty, it was under the ground, not over it.”

“Now she was paying attention, Mary realised that the air had been full of the crows’ rapid grumble all morning. Such a sore cawing; a shallow abrasion of the throat that seemed to expect no acknowledgment, no answer, certainly no consolation. She wondered what was grieving them. The scarcity of worms? The long wait for spring? The fact that they hadn’t been born peacocks?”

“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.”

Recommended for:

Fans of dark historical fiction inspired by and featuring some real-life characters. Those who like to see the underbelly of life and all its enthralling ugliness. Fans of Sarah Waters. People who don’t need a happy ending. Perhaps even those who enjoyed my own book, The Button Maker.

About the author

Probably most famous for her novel, Room (another book I loved), Emma Donoghue writes for both adults and children, and both contemporary and historical fiction. She has written novels, short stories, and scholarly books, as well as drama for the screen, stage, and radio.

Find out all about her and her work on her website.


About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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