November 2019 – The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
Although the Biblical writer certainly was not talking about literary genres and plots when he proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun”, it is surprising how many plots and themes are resurrected for new generations of readers. In November’s selection, The Turn of the Key, Zion’s readers at first wondered if we were being taken back to another era. The book jacket blurb talks about a nanny marooned in the wilds of Scotland with her charges, eerie noises, and hints of romance. Immediately, thoughts of old romance novels popped up with governesses as the main characters. Really, we thought, is the author trying to update The Turn of the Screw? Isn’t that whole governess thing overdone?
Well, Ware’s plot was not a trip down memory lane but rather set smack dab in the present day with an interesting presentation style. The main character is writing from prison where she is accused of murder and is seeking legal representation. She feels if she can just set down her story on paper, the attorney to whom she is appealing will feel compelled to help her. Chapter by chapter, our readers meet Rowan, a very modern young lady working at a day care center in England who desperately wants to move ahead. Nannies are presently in high demand among families where both parents work and can afford such a service, and when Sandra and Bill Elincourt advertise for a live-in nanny for their children, Rowan jumps at the chance. She journeys to rural Scotland and finds a renovated mansion, Heatherbrae, with a dual personality as the owners added an ultra- modern addition. The entire building is a “smart” house with cameras in every room and electronic apps to download on Rowan’s cellphone that allow her visual and audio surveillance of her charges. Electronic panels will control lights and locks. The Elincourts can contact her at anytime from anywhere in the world via their phones, suddenly talking to her with no warning. There are cameras in all the rooms, including her third floor bedroom leading Rowan to wonder whether the owners have video access.
Rowan finds the house disconcerting and the people as well. Evidently, previous nannies have come and gone, and the badly behaved children present a challenge. The oldest daughter is away at school but has left an angry sign on her door complete with foul language ordering no one to enter. When Sandra and Bill state they must go on a business trip the day after she arrives leaving her with two defiant young girls, Maddie and Ellie, and a needy toddler, Rowan is shaken. When Bill sleazily makes advances the first night, she is repulsed. The isolated location, unfamiliarity with the house ‘s controls, uneasiness over the cameras (she covers the one in her room with a sock), and the eerie sound of feet overhead where there shouldn’t be a room all conspire to keep her from sleep. Throw in a walled, gated poison garden, the fact that Maddie verbally and physically abuses Ellie to keep her in line, an unfriendly housekeeper (one of those necessary characters for a governess story) who shows up at odd times, and a resident handsome handyman, Jack Grant, who just happens to share the last name of a previous owner, and Rowan begins to doubt her senses and the people around her.
The novel is easily read and certainly keeps your interest as the story line unfolds. Our readers did find some things a bit unbelievable. First of all, in reality no attorney would take the time to read a rambling series of letters, but as a delivery technique for the story, it works. Legalities aside, what type of parents leave their children with someone they have never met before and go half way across the world? It was painfully obvious that Rowan could have given any answer to the interview questions, and the desperate parents would have hired her. Why would a nanny’s room not be on the same floor as her charges? Why did a prior nanny leave a written warning for her successor? What responsible parent would keep a poison garden, regardless of its historical botanical value, and allow children to run wild? As a reader remarked, guillotines are historical but you don’t keep them in a family home. So far, the only sympathetic character is Rowan, but she begins to drop hints that she is concealing something as she tells her story. You start to wonder if her arrest is groundless or if she had some mental issues.
However, it is revealed in a surprise twist that Rowan has assumed the identity of her roommate to get the job in order to track down her always absent father. Rowan is really Rachel, and Bill is also her father. That revelation heightened the ick factor big time when we recalled his moves the first night of her stay. It also explained why the author had kept him absent from the initial interview. But Rachel has now proven herself to be untruthful and devious; it hasn’t helped her profession of innocence.
Rachel enlists Jack’s aid to find the attic and the creepy contents of it (creepy being a word often used by our readers about this book) and ends up in bed with him. This romantic interest seemed like something the author felt obliged to throw into the mix; why would a woman suspect someone of driving her nuts and then jump into bed with him? Would a responsible nanny leave her charges in an eerie house whose electronics come alive while she enjoys an interlude? Rachel is looking less and less sympathetic. Then Maddie goes missing and a search finds her bloody body on the ground under Rachel’s window. The police think Rachel pushed her; Rachel swears she didn’t but why did she cover that camera in her room? What will happen to her?
Just when you think all will be explained . . . it isn’t . . .quite. First, there is a letter from a construction company who was tearing down the jail where Rachel was housed and found a bundle of letters from a prisoner to her solicitor hidden in the wall. Included in the bundle is a letter from the housekeeper who says she does not believe for an instant that Rachel would have hurt Maddie. The housekeeper admits she was biased against Rachel because she thought Rachel would leave like all the other nannies and the little girls would suffer again from desertion, but she told the police they had the wrong person. She included a letter from Ellie to Rachel (Ellie can speak into her ipad and then print her letters on the printer in her parents’ office – the wonders of technology) which offered an explanation of what happened. But why were the letters in the wall? Why did Rachel not send them? Having the death explained still leaves open the question of what happened to Rachel. Did she serve time to protect someone else? Was she released? How diabolical can children be? Readers could not figure out if the open-ended finish left room for a sequel, or if the author simply wanted to keep readers wondering.
Ms. Ware did a fantastic job of creating a feeling of horror in this novel and sustained it for the entire length of the story. The schizophrenic house helped to keep Rowan/Rachel off balance. The technology that seemingly came alive and took over had overtones of other horror novels we’ve read. In fact, at times, The Turn of the Key seemed like an amalgam of quite a few other authors’ works. For all the authentic depiction of present day, there were a few gaps. As was pointed out before, no lawyer has the time to read such a manuscript. Also, Britain holds a coroner’s inquest before an arrest for murder can be made; there was no mention of such an event.
However, other than those small details, the novel was wonderfully crafted and engaged us until the end. Indeed, some readers enjoyed it more than the author’s previous works. While it certainly isn’t a new plot, the story firmly updates the genre and brings it into the 21st century. And it almost seems to have a subliminal message. As we move to more and more artificial intelligence in our daily lives, stories like this give us pause. Are we trending toward a more sterile existence and less and less personal contact, and is that a good thing? Will interacting with machines (Alexa, Echo, self-checkouts, etc.) force us to interact less and less with humans? What effect will that have on our psyches and on society? These are interesting thoughts to ponder and give the novel more depth.
Most of Zion’s readers found this novel a very entertaining selection. We had one reader give it 2 thumbs up, 9 give it 1 thumb up, one reader gave it a knuckle, and one gave it 1 thumb down. If you are looking for a suspenseful reading experience, The Turn of the Key would be a good choice. In December, we move back to reality with A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. That meeting will be held in the Mustard Seed room on Thursday, December 12th, at 7:00 pm. Happy reading!