||"Strangers might remember a trip to Monmouth to see a girl hang, but who would spare a thought for the whos and hows and whys?" Mary Saunders asks herself on the way to the scaffold. Emma Donoghue has taken the scant facts of Mary's short life in the 1760s and given her heart, flesh, guts and humour in this fine tale. Mary, at 13, seduced by an impulse for a coloured ribbon, and dreams of silks and sashes--as well as longings to better herself--becomes a slammerkin, a loose woman, in the roil of Hogarthian London. Her friend and mentor into the world of tricks is Doll who knows every inch of the city's high and low life. When Mary finds her dead, she flees to Monmouth and tries to reinvent herself as a servant girl. But the chafes of servitude and of "knowing her place" lead to a double life, a brutal murder, and her end at 16.
No rags to riches tale here, but nor does the author allow the brutal circumstances of Mary's life to swamp her colourful and richly textured narrative. Mary is full of spark and cheek; her eye is sharp to the hypocrisies of privilege and religion, her speech deliciously expresses her disdain for her "betters". Only occasionally does the narrative slip into too much telling at the expense of showing, and thus loses some of its emotional impact and pace.
That said, Emma Donoghue's gifts as a storyteller are considerable: her unsparing accounts of small and large events, a wealth of detail and a wonderfully rich and fluent language makes this a vivid and moving slice from the underbelly of 18th-century life.--Ruth Petrie