The entire time reading this book, I had the song “The Worst Pies In London” from the Sweeney Todd musical stuck in my head. And that’s as light-hearted as this review’s gonna get.

This is a well written, utterly miserable book in which you keep thinking you’ve hit the floor before another terrible thing happens, until all you’re reading for is some small redemption, a sliver of a happy ending, and you don’t get one. To sum it up in one sentence: 13-year-old girl gets raped, spends the following years in a life of brutality until that’s all she knows, and is dead at 16. There, I just saved you several excruciating hours.

It begins with her being raped, becoming pregnant, being cast out and abandoned by her mother, being gang-raped, contracting an STD, having to become a whore to raise the money for a back-street abortion, becoming barren from the dangerous and shoddy abortion, then whoring for drink to forget what’s happened. Then she turns 14.

The frame of the story pitches halfway through, leaving London for Monmouth, where we get more than just Mary’s perspective for narration. In this place Mary tries to start over as anything-but-a-whore, and is met with almost universal kindness by the family that takes her in. The horror that follows stems from Mary’s inability to adjust, to not constantly kick at the restraints of class and gender, and to be able to empathise and care for people when she is so jaded and cynical. She fucks up everything she touches, because she herself is so fucked up. She eventually returns to whoring, because a life in which people use each other, where all interaction is an open deceit, in which people are out for themselves and fuck you, is a life she understands, unlike one where the deceit and manipulations are presumed hidden but not absent. The moral of the story is: You can’t unfuck a kid.

It should also be mentioned that the book is set in the 18th century, but there’s nothing about Mary’s tale that couldn’t or doesn’t happen today. Horrendous in a timeless way, Slammerkin captures the pressures bearing down and breaking a little girl before her life’s even begun.