Donoghue takes scraps of the intriguing true story of Mary Saunders, a servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763, and fashions from them an intelligent and mesmerizing historical novel. Born to a mother who sews for pennies and a father who died in jail, 14-year-old Mary's hardened existence in London brings to mind the lives of Dickens's child characters. Mary has an eye for fine things and ambitions beyond her social station, and her desire for a shiny red ribbon leads her to sell the only thing she owns: her body. Turned out by her mother, Mary is taken in by a local prostitute, Doll Higgins; they live together in Rat's Castle in the seedy section of town. Doll teaches Mary the tricks of her trade and gives her all the gaudy dresses Mary once coveted. For a year, the term slammerkin—meaning a loose gown or a loose woman—becomes all too familiar to Mary, until she checks into a charity hospital and attempts to straighten out. Missing the "liberty" of her former life, she leaves the hospital only to encounter more trouble back on the streets. Fleeing to the country village of Monmouth, her parents' hometown, Mary finds Mrs. Jones, an old friend of her mother's, and obtains a maid's position in her household, but Mary can't shake her dark ambitions: she re-enters the flesh trade, bringing disaster upon herself. Readers may feel both sympathetic to and angry with Mary, who questions whether hers is the lot of all women, but whose anesthetized spirit leads to her rash action. Donoghue's characterizations are excellent, and her brutal imagery and attention to language capture the spirit of the time with vital precision. Agent, Caroline Davidson. (June)
Forecast:The provocative jacket will catch readers' attention, but attentive handselling, perhaps helped by the author tour, will be required to distinguish this worthy historical novel from similar titles.