Was there a fight? A murder? An accident? As Donovan lies in a hospital bed, his girlfriend, Beatrice, tries to piece together what has happened to him. The Ruinous Sweep is a story with parallel narratives that converge in the middle. The author’s descriptions of the state in which Donovan is trapped – unconscious but experiencing terrifying, realistic visions, and unable to wake up – evoke a sense of fear and frustration in the reader. Beatrice’s narrative is more straightforward – and her tense interactions with adults, particularly the condescension she experiences from a police officer assigned to Donovan’s case, as well as the disdain for teenage relationships from a cold hospital nurse, are remarkably true to life.
Mature and thoughtful teens, Donovan and Beatrice are both likeable, highly relatable characters. The strength of their love for one another, shown both through flashbacks and their present-day actions, drives the story. Despite solid character development, the sheer number of moving parts in The Ruinous Sweep sometimes weighs the narrative down. It’s part mystery, part love story, part homage to The Divine Comedy. The numerous references to characters and place names from Dante’s classic make Wynne-Jones’s book a bit hard to follow, unless the reader either takes the time to look them up or is already familiar with them.
Despite these issues, the prose is beautiful, and the sections narrated by Donovan are gorgeously dream-like. It’s not for all young-adult readers, but The Ruinous Sweep is recommended for those seeking to understand the enduring power of ancient stories in modern literature.
At the close of the novel, all questions are answered, and the reader experiences a powerful sense of resolution on behalf of Beatrice and Donovan. The bittersweet conclusion, while not what the characters or the reader hope for, is much more satisfying than a cookie-cutter happy ending.