I side-eyed Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key because it nods at James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” one classic I’ve abhorred since I had the misfortune to read it in a 19th century lit class. I hate James’s twisted, labyrinthine sentences, his dunce of a narrator, and the creepy setting. I like my gothic with a good streak of romance, like Jane Eyre, and female protagonists with a brain in their head, like Jane, like Stewart’s, Kearsley’s, and St. James’s. But I’d heard and read reviewers and Twitter friends praise Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs. Westaway that I wanted to try one of her books. In The Turn of the Key, I got a fairly satisfying hybrid between atmospheric James and contemporary feminist gothic. Had the first-person narrator/voice been anything like James’s governess, I would’ve DNF-ed. As it stands, narrator Rowan Caine is what you’d get if Bridget Jones was trapped in a horror-gothic-thriller, which made her a heck of a lot more likeable than the anonymous prig James created.
Ware’s Key opens with Rowan writing to barrister Mr. Wrexham from her cell in HMP Charnworth after being convicted of killing one of her former employers’ children. Rowan recounts how she came to be arrested, tried, and convicted in the hope that Mr. Wrexham, with a reputation for acquitting the “no-hopes”, will take on her case. Her letters describe how Rowan came to work for the Elincourts and was broken by the mysterious goings-on in their Highlands-set, gothic, renovated-uber-mansion, Heatherbrae House: creaking footsteps, smart-home insanity, Alexa gone rogue, fractious, peevish children, and one sexy handyman/groundskeeper, Jack Grant. Frankly, the only sympathetic character in the lot of them is Rowan herself, an ordinary voice amidst the twistedness of the rest of the characters, though I like the descriptions of Jack’s muscles moving beneath his t-shirt (once a romance reader, always a romance reader).
Ware checks off her gothic boxes well. You start by isolating your protagonist sufficiently to ensure the heeby-jeebies for narrator and reader alike. Rowan’s employers, Bill and Sandra Elincourt, mum with four who also runs an architectural firm with her husband and renowned architect. They’ve lost nanny after nanny and promptly hire Rowan, who’d been working in a daycare till now, “Little Nippers”. The moment Rowan arrives from the train station with handyman Jack and the Elincourts’ Tesla, Bill and Sandra leave for a conference the next day. Rowan’s thrown into the brat-fray right away and the confusing smart-home surveillance features, going on and off in various out-of-whack-ways, make sleeping, eating, and being normal near-impossible.
The house itself is a masterfully-rendered setting because, despite its smart-home efficiency, it’s a strange mixture of the renovated and abandoned. There are doors, stairs, and rooms that were never touched, full of creepy, mysterious detritus from the house’s history. There are rumours of child-parent ick, of love gone wrong, of poisonings, and haunted and haunting grief. There is a heritage “poison garden” that is locked and unlocked on mysterious occasions. Poor Rowan is bug-eyed from lack of sleep, four little nasties, and the charade she’s set herself up to play as the “perfect nanny” when all she wants to do, Bridget-Jones-style, is smoke a fag, eat chips, and wear her PJs all the day long.
Ware’s novel was a page-turner and I sacrificed precious work time to reach the end. Even so, having finished, I have the nauseous feeling I always get when I read a book written to elicit that very response from me. It was clever, well-written, and compelling. Ware brought her narrative to a slap-in-the-face melodramatic conclusion. Happily, it throws light on James’s misogyny. I cheered. It also leaves us with a suggestive HEA, which leaves me with the emoji sad face. I wish I might have been able to see the deserving Rowan be happy. I cannot fault The Turn of the Key for not being a romance, but there was enough there to make me yearn for it and for Ms Ware to try her hand at a happier ending; however, justice will be served and there is vindication for Rowan (another little stab at James I appreciated). Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key is deserving of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma, from Miss Austen and yours truly.
Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key is published by Scout Press (Simon and Schuster Canada). It was released in 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley courtesy of Scout Press, via Netgalley.