Emma Donoghue took the thinnest of historical data and wrote Slammerkin, a story of England in the 1670s. I'm not a scholar on the England of that period, but everything Donoghue presents is completely believable, from the squalor of central London to the Welsh countryside near Monmouth. Even the most minor characters are fully realized, and I came away from the book believing in both Mary Saunders and the world she moves through.
Moves through? Yes. Early in the novel the 14-year-old Mary becomes her own master, but she has no real understanding of how to do anything beyond her desires of the moment. Her eventual life of prostitution begins with a childish desire for a red ribbon, and she takes one step after another without much thought other a yearning for fine clothing and a horror at being told what to do. she rarely actually takes control of her life; most of her choices are simple or naive reactions rather than actual decisions.
Further, Mary is the poster child for bad decisions. Time and again she finds herself with opportunities and positions which lift her out of her low circumstances. But when her new circumstances don't give her complete freedom, she pushes back against them until she either leaves her rescuers or destroys the situation. After enough conflicts, she finally takes actions which can neither be escaped nor repaired and comes to a bad end.
This is not a happy book. Mary is so sympathetically drawn we want to see her do well; Donoghue draws her so fully that we understand what drives her even as she fails to manage the reins. But her world is so interesting and the people in it so realistic that it's well worth reading, even if only as a tale of failure.
Recommended. I'm going to be picking up more by Emma Donoghue in the near future.
Some upcoming stuff: I seem to have fallen into a cycle of reading several books at once, and have nearly completed Iain M. Banks' Against A Dark Background and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy. Both have proven compulsively readable, and the Vandermeer is one of the oddest things I've read in a long time. Expect reviews soon.