book: The Turn of the Key (2019) by Ruth Ware

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Although the title leads one to think this is going to be a riff on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (adapted as one of my all-time favorite movies, Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr), in reality, beyond the basic setup — young governess in remote house, ghastly kids, spooky goings-on — it’s a very different tale.

Londoner Rowan Caine gets a dream job looking after the kids of prosperous architects Sandra and Bill Elincourt in their grand house somewhere in the wilds of Scotland. The Elincourts have ruthlessly modernized much of the old mansion, in particular installing the Happy app everywhere: there’s surveillance in every room; devices like light-switches and curtains can simply be vocally instructed rather than clicked or pulled; the fridge tells you when it’s running short of things; and so on. In short, as Rowan soon discovers, it’s a nightmare of superfluous technology.

Almost immediately after her arrival — she has just long enough to decide she likes Sandra and avoid the eager clutches of the creepy Bill — Rowan is left in charge of three young kids for a week as the parents scurry off to an important business get-together. That’s when the spooky events start happening: relentless pacing in the boarded-up attic above her bedroom; the Happy app apparently going insane in the middle of the night; the unexplained appearance in the house of selected items from the old, supposedly sealed-up poison garden in the grounds; all these and more.

Rowan, as a rational woman, is convinced there must be a human agency behind all these events, but this becomes harder and harder to believe as time goes on. Meanwhile she has to face the inexplicable hostility of the part-time housekeeper, Jean, and resist the temptation to jump the bones of the estate’s handyman, Jack.

The story’s told in the form of an extraordinarily long letter from Rowan to a solicitor advocate (as barristers are called in Scotland). She’s in prison on remand, because the cops — and the rest of the world — are convinced she murdered one of the Elincourt kids. (We don’t learn which one until right near the end.) As the tale unfolds and we discover more about the nasty little secrets of the Elincourts, we also, naturally, discover more about Rowan, who has some pretty startling secrets of her own. And it seems to me she has a further secret that she doesn’t know she has: she’s a far better nanny and a far better human being than she believes she is.

Twisty psychological thrillers with potentially unreliable narrators are all the rage these days, and a couple of the ones I read earlier this year struck me as pretty dire. I’d accordingly planned to more or less abandon the subgenre. But then I came across this one, and was drawn in by the The Turn of the Screw connection.

I’m very pleased that I succumbed. I spent parts of the book almost wishing I could put it down (like covering one’s eyes during a horror movie!), because the situation Rowan was trapped in was so horrific — not because of the spookeries, because of the vile kids. But Ware has written the book well enough that I was gripped despite my cowardice. I’d guessed most of the twist that appears in the last couple of pages, but there’s actually a further twist built into that one that’s left unstated, and it’s this final little volte face that I think will stay with me the longest.

6 thoughts on “book: The Turn of the Key (2019) by Ruth Ware

  1. Sounds quite good, I’ll look it up hopefully it’s not too long. I just saw a film at the weekend that was supposedly based on The Turn of the Screw (called The Turning) – hmm not that great to be honest.

    • Hm. I hadn’t heard of that one — must check it out. The movie that you HAVE to see of the novel, if you’ve not already done so, is The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr as the governess. One of my fave movies of all time.

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