Should historical fiction be considered speculative fiction?

OK, no, I know. I’m only asking because I want to talk about a novel that isn’t SF, fantasy or horror. The book in question is Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. It was inspired by a true story about a teenaged servant who murdered her mistress.

First of all, I loved the title. A slammerkin was a type of loose gown popular in the mid to late seventeenth century and also a euphemism for a whore. It’s a fabulous word.

The first part of the book, written in third person and entirely based in the main character’s pov, was gorgeous. It was visceral and colourful and drew me right into a very physical world. The use of language and metaphor was striking. For this alone, this book is worth reading.

Part two felt slightly different. It was less colourful, less passionate. Partly this reflects the changed life circumstances of the protagonist and was well done, if disappointing. I enjoyed the earthiness of part one very much and was sad to return to a greyer world. We are introduced to other povs in part two and while this is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the story, inevitably there’s not enough time to really get inside the character’s heads.

The ending was telegraphed but not obvious. I know this is something I complain about a lot and it was nice to be surprised. Slammerkin starts with a prologue of the protagonist in gaol and then shows the reader how she got there. Somehow I got it into my head that this was a rags to riches tale and the prologue represented a middle low point rather than the end and it was well into the book that I realised this was not to be. Despite that misunderstanding, however, the ending managed to be engaging and shocking without coming as a complete surprise.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Sometimes the pov gets a little confused, swapping between characters mid-scene or even flipping back and forth in the same scene. When the narrator is a character other than the protagonist, the characterisation is a little flimsy. This is compensated for by the characterisation that’s done while we’re in the head of the protagonist, so that in total the characters are quite solid. It’s just that the reader knows them more through the protagonist than through themselves.

This book came to me serendipitously. My neighbour gave it to me and I’m really glad she did. I’ll be reading some more of Emma Donaghue’s novels.

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