A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah: A Review

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By Tracy G. Cassels

I have to say that I love fiction, though I rarely have time to read much of it anymore.  And I’ve always been particularly into mysteries even when I was a kid.  Back then, Nancy Drew did it for me, but it’s been a while, and now I tend to prefer my mysteries with something a little bit more to them.  A story to make you think, so to speak.  Why am I telling you this?  Because that is exactly what A Room Swept White offers – a highly intelligent, thought-provoking mystery.  And it’s not just any kind of thought-provoking, it’s parenting thought-provoking which makes it reading some mothers will love, and some will hate.  I’ll state outright that I loved it.  In fact, it’s been a while since I stayed up until 4am reading a book because I simply could not put it down.  Not would not, could not.

A Room Swept White is the story of the murder of Helen Yardley, a woman who spent years in jail for the murder of two of her children before being freed some five or so years earlier.  As the story begins with her murder, all we know about her and her case is given to us via the side story of an attempt to make a documentary about her and two other women who faced similar charges.  You see, despite being a murder mystery about Helen Yardley, the story is also a murder mystery about the children of Helen Yardley and Ray Hines, and the child of a friend left in the care of Sarah Jaggard.  All five children are dead when the novel begins, presumably from cot death, and Helen and Ray have spent time in jail before being acquitted—Sarah was found not guilty—through the efforts of a well-known journalist, Laurie Nattrass who is attempting to make a documentary about their ordeals.  The demon behind these miscarriages of justice?  A Dr. Judith Duffy who testified against all three women and countless more.  The problem, as we soon find out, is that these “miscarriages of justice” are anything but clear and the question of guilt or innocence becomes paramount in the quest to discover who killed Helen Yardley and whether or not the other women are at risk of the same fate.

I admit the topic of infant death is the hard part of this book and the part that may turn many mothers off, but it’s done so well that I found it didn’t disturb me the way it does in most fiction works.  While the deaths are in the past, there is a pressing need to find out the truth, not just to hold people accountable if necessary, but to understand if the murder at hand was related.  The twists and turns taken, not just in the current case, but the previous cases as well, serve to drag you in deeper (though you’ll hopefully go willingly).  And not only is the plot itself subject to twists and turns, but when you feel you’ve become fond of a particular character (or not so fond, as the case may be), you’ll find you change your mind again.  And again.  This isn’t bad writing, but rather the reflection of a great writer writing characters who are as multi-faceted as us humans tend to be—the more we uncover about an individual, rarely are we left with the same impression.

What I loved most about this book, though, as a parent and an individual highly interested in the complexities of all things parenting-related, is that it touched on some very primal emotions we have in response to the death of an infant while managing to highlight the difficulties we face in both coming to terms with it and placing blame.   While I acknowledge this book will not be for all parents, it is a wonderful mystery full of thought-provoking ideas about how we handle an infant’s death.  For those of you willing to take the plunge, you will not regret it.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

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