This book was inspired by an actual murder in the Welsh border regions in 1763. In surviving newspaper articles from the time it is suggested that the young girl who committed the murder did so because she was obsessed with clothes. This is the basis that Emma Donoghue chooses to follow.
When we first meet Mary Donoghue she is 14 years old, and a schoolgirl living in London, at an age where most other working class girls have been sent out to work. Mary hasn't been sent out to work yet because her mother promised her father before he was executed for his part in a rebellion that she would ensure that Mary was educated. Mary's mother has remarried to a man that Mary can't stand, and who resents the fact that he is supporting a girl who is old enough to find work and assist more in the household. The problem is that Mary feels that she is too good to go into service, too good to become a seamstress, yet she wants all the fine things in life.
Early in the book Mary has an encounter with a peddler where she gives away her virtue for the price of a red ribbon. Left pregnant by the encounter she is eventually kicked out of home when her condition is discovered. She shortly finds herself in one of the roughest areas of London, and it isn't too big a leap for her before she finds herself servicing the cullies and making some money for herself. Her one friend is a fellow prostitute named Doll, who teaches Mary the tricks of the trade and how to get by, as well as warning her who to stay away from.
In the midst of a terribly cold winter, Doll convinces Mary that needs to sign up to go into a home for reformed prostitutes, if only so that she has warmth and food for the rest of the winter. When she finally rebels against the strict rules and religious environment of the home she comes back to find her only friend gone, well, dead...and then on the wrong side of one of the most dangerous pimps in London.
Mary flees to her mother's home town of Monmouth, hoping to find a new life for herself, to match with the new history she has made of her life. She is taken in as a maid for her mother's former best friend, Mrs Jones, who rapidly befriends Mary, not only employing her but also making her her confidant in her struggle to give her husband a son.
Also living in her home are the slave Abi, originally from Africa, via the Caribbean, who works for no wages. There is also Mrs Ash who was originally employed as a wet nurse but has been living with the family for many years, now in the guise of a governess for the one surviving daughter. Finally there is Daffy, and intense but likeable young man who is trying to make a life for himself away from his hypocritical, cleric father, who also runs one of the village pubs.
Once Mary is living with the Jones, this story becomes several things - firstly a study of extended family as defined at the time to include servants and slaves, secondly, a story of empowerment as Mary encourages Abi to try and get some wages for her toil. Finally, this is a story about whether Mary can take the chance that she has given to live a life away from the prostitution that she has previously undertaken. At one point it appears that Daffy and Mary may marry, but that is shortlived as Mary realises that if she does marry Daffy she will be stuck in a little town in the Welsh Marches for the rest of her life.
As Mary goes through life, pretty much destroying the peace of mind of the people around her, the author gives us a character who is almost totally unlikeable. What makes her so greedy, so convinced of her elevated worth in her own mind, and yet so able to rationalise that choosing a life of prostitution is okay for her. Mary in effect lives hard and fast and dies early without ever seemingly being happy, or at the very least unable to realise when she has a good thing going - a precautionary tale if nothing else.
Whilst Mary, and many of the other characters are unlikeable, and this is in many ways a story without much hope, it is nonetheless well written and compelling. I have had it on my TBR list for ages, so I am glad to have finally read it! Even where there are glimpses of hope, for example, for Abi, to me the suggestion for the future was not really one of happiness.
Within that though, there are glimpses of humour, such as when the ultra religious and judgmental Mrs Ash gets her comeuppance, but those moments are few and far between.
When rating this book, I hovered between 3.5 and 4, mainly because the characters are pretty much unlikeable, but the writing was compelling, and I was completely drawn into the story on more than one occasion.