The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (Scout Press, 2019)
“3rd September 2017
Dear Mr. Wrexham,
I know you don’t know me but please, please, please you have to help me.”
With this intriguing opening, Ruth Ware launches her fifth novel, The Turn of the Key, a mystery reminiscent of Gothic novels in its sinister and dark tone. However, the novel is set in the modern era. A young woman, Rowan Caine, writes a series of letters from prison where she is being held as the defendant in the high profile murder case of one of the young charges under her care as a nanny. Rowan begs the prominent lawyer, Mr. Wrexham, to defend her in the upcoming trial
Rowan, who has worked at Little Nippers Nursery in Peckham, England, loathes her boss, who passed over Rowan and promoted another employee for a better position. Finding an advert for a position for a nanny in what seems to be an ideal situation, Rowan determines that she has to win the job. She fits all the qualifications specified by the employers, and she needs a fresh start in her life that will change drastically with a move to a remote house in the Scottish Highlands.
The position is enticing, particularly since the salary is huge, and there are other advantages that go along with the job. It is a live-in post, with the use of a car, eight weeks of vacation a year, and only four young girls to mind, and one of them is in boarding school for most of the year. Determined to win the position, Rowan sails through a difficult interview with her prospective employer, Sandra Elincourt, and lands the job.
In an email letting Rowan knows that she has won the job, Sandra Elincourt drops in a peculiar caveat to her new employee. Sandra writes, “Since we bought Heatherbrae we have become aware of various superstitions surrounding the house’s history. It is an old building and has had no more than the usual number of deaths and tragedies in its past, but for some reason these have resulted in some local tales of haunting, etc. Unfortunately, this fact has upset some of our recent nannies, to the extent that four have resigned in the past fourteen months.”
Why would any employee accept a job after being warned of such unusual occurrences (four nannies quitting in fourteen months?) is a mystery in itself. Soon Rowan arrives in a breathtaking part of the Highlands, and is dazzled by the spectacular views. However, once she meets her charges, she begins to absorb the challenges of the job. Petra is a baby, who is developing a mind of her own, Ellie is sweet and somewhat open to Rowan, and Maddie is defiant as well as a bully to her younger sister. The oldest sibling, Rhiannon, is away currently at boarding school, but when she comes home for the holidays, she presents as a nasty, self-absorbed fourteen year old.
The title of the novel, The Turn of the Key, immediately evokes the 1898 Henry James Gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw. There can be no question that Ware has based the plot, themes, and tone as well as several characters in the James’ story. For example, the plot revolves around a governess who becomes convinced that the grounds of the estate in which she is working are haunted. In Rowan’s first introduction to Maddie, the child warns her, “The ghosts don’t want you here.”
When The Turn of the Screw appeared on the literary scene, the critics debated whether the presence of the ghosts is real or the creation of the diseased mind of the governess. The Turn of the Screw is written in the first person narrative from the point of view of the governess. Therefore, can we believe her story?
Considering the fact that Rowan is telling the lawyer her version of the events through letters, we are getting only her side of the story. At one point, Rowan writes to Wrexham, “I am telling you the truth. The unvarnished, ugly truth. And it is all that. It is unpolished and unpleasant, and I don’t pretend I acted like an angel. But I didn’t kill anyone.” As readers, we must wonder if Rowan is telling the truth to Wrexham, and that doubt lingers as we read the rest of the story.
The plot twists that come roaring at us at the novel’s conclusion are unexpected and shocking. We don’t see them coming, and yet, knowing the ending, if one goes back and rereads even a few pages, Ware has been playing with us all along. The hints are there, right in front of us. Therefore, The Turn of the Key might require a second reading just to pick up all the clues which are so handily given.
I liked Ware’s other novels, The Woman in Cabin 10, In a Dark Dark Wood, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway. However, this novel is her best yet. Clearly, Ware is honing her skills as she continues to write. Put The Turn of the Key on your must-read list soon.