The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (Published in 2019 by Gallery/Scout Press)
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5 stars)
The Turn of the Key, Ruth Ware’s fifth and most recent novel, is my introduction to her work, and I picked it up because, well, I was in the mood for creepy gothic houses and creepy kids. (It’s a really weird reading mood to have, especially right before the New Year, but oh well.) On those counts, it definitely delivered – the house was creepy and the kids were downright hellish – but sadly, all that elaborate atmospheric set-up had very little payoff at the end, and I was left feeling confused and vaguely betrayed for want of a satisfactory ending.
I’ll backtrack a bit. The Turn of the Key is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Rowan Caine, who is hired as a live-in nanny for four girls at the large, picturesque, sprawling home of Bill and Sandra Elincourt in the Scottish highlands, described as a house with gothic architecture fitted with modern technology (it’s something of a smart house). Throughout the first few chapters, Rowan repeatedly emphasizes how perfect the job opportunity is – “almost too perfect”, with its salary of £55,000 per year – as a way of foreshadowing the ugliness behind that veneer of perfection.
But then we’re already clued in to these dark undercurrents from the start, because Rowan’s story is framed as a series of letters to a lawyer she’s writing to from her prison cell while awaiting trial for her alleged murder of one of the Elincourt children. The letters are her desperate attempt to prove her innocence, and to convey the “ugly, unvarnished truth” of what really went on in Heatherbrae House.
So far, so good. For the first ten chapters or so, I was completely hooked – I love the epistolary format, and this sort of narrative framing had already positioned the readers (or me, at least) on Rowan’s side, as if I were Mr. Wrexham, the lawyer she was writing to. And I knew I would still try to be on her side, even if she proved to be an unreliable narrator.
Over the next few letters, Rowan narrates how she’d chanced upon the nannying position, how badly she wanted the job, and her subsequent interview with Sandra Elincourt (her employer). On that interview prior to accepting her job, she also met the girls – two school-aged and one baby – all of them sullen and bratty. One of them even warned Rowan to stay away from the house because “the ghosts won’t like it” – just as they had driven away the three nannies before her.
Rowan, however, is undeterred by these warnings, and once she’s hired as the nanny she moves in to Heatherbrae House with the family. But on her first day, Sandra and Bill Elincourt had some conference to attend to, so they leave Rowan with the kids and quickly take off. This struck me as outrageously irresponsible – who leaves their 8-year-old, 5-year-old, and few-month-old baby with a complete stranger? It seemed to me like the author’s way of keeping the couple out of the picture so the real action could happen, but I was curious enough about what would happen that this illogical decision on the part of the Elincourts didn’t really detract from the reading experience.
Sure enough, when the parents leave, strange things begin to happen. This is where Heatherbrae House really comes to life. It’s so central to the story that it becomes a character, and Ruth Ware excelled in her description of old-school creepy and modern-day creepy – imagine a home with gothic-style architecture, complete with a hidden poison garden for a backyard, but also with cameras installed in every room, disembodied Siri-like voices speaking from the walls to anticipate your needs, and technology suddenly malfunctioning in the middle of the night. The house felt nearly sentient, almost like it could be the antagonist of the novel. In fact, I couldn’t read this at night because I was half-afraid that the walls of my room would move – I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ware’s novel suddenly morphed into sci-fi/horror midway and Heatherbrae House really did come alive.
And, honestly, that might have made for a more interesting book than the events that followed. This is basically what happened next: the kids were difficult. Rowan loses her temper at them. Strange footsteps were heard in the middle of the night. Household items mysteriously disappear and reappear in their proper places. Rowan suspects the hot gardener and the old housekeeper are the culprits. The eldest Elincourt child comes home, threatens that she knows something about Rowan. . . . and then, suddenly, inexplicably, someone ends up dead.
What started out as a murder mystery morphed into a horror story, which then mystifyingly turned into something of a domestic drama. I can’t say much without giving the ending away, but I can say that even as I was thoroughly confused at the book’s genre-identity crisis, I raced to the end in hopes for some explanation for what was happening, or that the ending would tie back neatly to the beginning. But no such thing happened. Sure, we did eventually find out who the killer was, but that discovery wasn’t even particularly important anymore, smothered as it was by all the new elements that had been introduced too late into the story.
In conclusion, I was disappointed with this novel, especially since I wanted to like it at first. It might have been better had there been a few more chapters or an epilogue, or if she’d introduced the other elements earlier on in the story (or not at all, actually). Still, this wouldn’t detract me from reading Ware’s other works – I was still impressed by how she’d tried to frame this story, and I was genuinely spooked by the house. Here’s to hoping her other books will be better.
Read December 30, 2019 – January 3, 2020 | Goodreads Account