21 March 2018

Review: The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

In Sydney in the early 1900s, an astonishing number of babies were found abandoned and discarded in the waterways of Sydney. It's hard to imagine, but many were also left in parks and public areas - some alive - in the hope members of the public would find and look after them. This raised complex questions about women's health and the shame of unwanted pregnancies and babies born out of wedlock.

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton is the true crime case of one such baby, who washed up in a suitcase on a beach in Mosman, Sydney in 1923. The mother (Sarah) was identified through some fantastic old school detective work, and Bretherton follows the case through the Sydney legal process, subsequent media circus and court of public opinion.
The author sets the scene well, with plenty of background on the accused before her crime of infanticide. At times I did find a liiiittle too much of the author inserting herself - or fictionalising events - that occasionally jerked me out of the investigative tone.

I'd have preferred more info on other similar cases, given there was an abundance of baby deaths in this period. 

"In December 1913 the unofficial count of baby cadavers (in less than two years) came to fifty-nine: on average, one (...) every fortnight for two years straight." Page 123

Bretherton explains that the majority of the babies were unidentified which makes this task extremely difficult and all the more tragic. I would have liked more photos of the two accused women other than those featured on the cover; assuming there are any of course.

I would also be curious to compare the stats with today's crime rates for abandoned babies and infanticide. Now that 100 years have passed (hard to believe the 1920s were a century ago) it'd be interesting to know if society is doing a better job of caring for underprivileged women facing unwanted pregnancies today. I certainly hope so.

In closing, my reading of The Suitcase Baby shed light on a shocking crime in Sydney's history and an underlying tragedy I knew nothing about, and for that I'm grateful.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

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