Ruth Ware’s, fifth novel, The Turn of the Key, has been calling the shots early on in the literary fiction game. I have been an avid fan of mystery/thriller novels, and Ruth Ware is no stranger to the genre. I have only read one of her novels, The Girl in Cabin 10, but that one didn’t strike a chord as much as The Turn of the Key did which is mostly attributed to the latter’s writing style which is characterized by an infusion of Gothic elements and slow-building suspense. I have seen mixed reviews of the novel but on average, it has sustained itself at 4 out of 5 stars.
What appealed to me first hand was the way the author narrated the story. The protagonist, Rowan Caine, was introduced to have been writing letters to a lawyer from prison. It took quite a few attempts before she finally narrated the events leading to her current predicament – for the sole purpose of pleading her case before a jury. Rowan was forthright in her claim of innocence to the murder of a child which took place at the Heatherbrae House to which she was employed as a nanny. The events surrounding Rowan’s employment under Bill and Sandra Elincourt, from the time she unexpectedly stumbled across the ad to her nightmarish plight ending up to her trial for murder, make up this overwrought and clandestine masterpiece of a novel.
The mounting tension that progressed in the novel was primarily due to Rowan’s unreliability as a narrator. There were times that I have doubted her motives as were mentioned several times in the novel. Her character thoughts allowed the readers to question her intentions based on her wavering actions and attempt at perfection. It wasn’t until the end that her true intention was finally exposed.
I also loved how the author fused Gothic elements and advanced technology together to create a perfect balance of mystery (think Panic Room and The Haunting of Hill House). It had become an effective tool in distinguishing the novel from classic writing. I find it mighty brilliant how the author narrated Rowan’s train journey as reminiscent of classic gothic tales then jolts us once Rowan sees the Elincourt’s Tesla and the Heatherbrae House’s Victorian foundation equipped with modern technology. The fusion of the old and the new balances the novel’s take on mystery. For example, the discovery of the attic, the secret garden containing the broken down statue of a woman, the eerie footsteps at night, the porcelain doll’s head, and the menacing history of the Heatherbrae House, were just a few of the gothic devices Ware had used to create the atmosphere of terror. On the other hand, Ware’s inclusion of modern technology (the Happy app), suspends the feeling of terror but replaces the sentiment with something more sinister–the feeling that you are being watched and your privacy invaded. It also distinguishes the novel from its classic counterpart the Turn of the Screw by Henry James. While James’ novel was quite ambiguous, Ware’s take on the cult classic relied on Rowan’s character as a practical, non-superstitious woman who doesn’t take things as they are but gathers shreds of evidence and plausible explanations rather than the admission of extra-mundane occurrences.
Foreshadowing elements were abundant in the novel such as the discovery of the decayed crow found in the attic and the presence of the purple flower signifying death. The novel was never short of the usual hallmarks of the mystery genre such as suspicious characters in the guise of Jack Grant, Mrs. McKenzie, both Sandra and Bill Elincourt, and the three children.
The author also made clever use of mirroring when we compare Rowan’s fate with the fate of Dr. Kenwick Grant. Both have been accused of the death of a child although, the truth of Elspeth Grant’s death was unknown. The parallelism was well-executed which also served as a form of foreshadowing — how Rowan felt when she had seen articles concerning Elspeth’s death; how she had a sudden urge of sympathy for the nanny who fortunately was not present at the time of the scandal. It was after all an ominous narrative that would befall on Rowan instead.
The Turn of the Key is an intelligent, well-crafted novel that knocks you out of your preconceived notions and suspicions. It is a novel that speaks of fears, betrayal, and the need for acceptance. Ultimately, I believe the story was about love and sacrifice which ended with a cliffhanger, and for which I believe was the writer’s way of making the readers realize the sacrifice that Rowan did. The novel succeeded in disconcerting whatever predictions you may have as it did mine. Ware’s masterful storytelling exposes the conundrums of the human psyche in relation to our evil motives versus guilt, revenge versus forgiveness, and malevolence versus conscience. Overall, this novel is highly recommended because of the controversial connection that Rowan had with the characters and how the author managed to weave a powerful story strong enough to linger.