The title of Ruth Ware’s most recent book, “The Turn of the Key,” provokes a comparison to Henry James’ novella, “The Turn of the Screw,” which was written over 100 years ago. Both books have elements common in scary stories: phantoms or delusions of ghosts; overgrown, dark, gardens; creaking floors; absent parents; deceased children; new governesses; strange neighbors, and isolated English settings.
When 17-year-old Rowan Caine is hired as a nanny for children ranging in age from 18 months to 14 years, she doesn’t realize she will be left alone with the children almost immediately upon unpacking her bags. The parents are leaving for a distant trade show. Rowan learns that she is the fourth nanny hired within a matter of months.
Sandra and Bill Elincourt, the parents’ children, are architects who have added several modern, glass-enclosed rooms to the back of their rambling Victorian country house. The house, upon first viewing, is not what it seems, just as the family is not what it seems. They live in a “smart house” in which every electronic device is controlled by a smartphone or a panel built into the walls. Most rooms have a camera installed so the children’s activities (and Rowan’s) can be viewed at any time by the parents, from wherever they are in the world.
Upon leaving, Sandra gives Rowan a thick binder of instructions to read regarding care of the children. Bill is uninvolved, but he approaches Rowan immediately upon meeting her in an unnerving manner, telling her that she looks familiar, a remark important as the story progresses.
Jack, the handsome handyman, lives on the grounds. He curiously materializes when Rowan struggles with an issue involving the children or the machinations of the smart devices. A quiet, mysterious, older woman comes in daily to help with cleaning. It is clear from her demeanor that she does not like Rowan.
Henry James’ and Ruth Ware’s stories begin with a letter by a governess explaining her side of the story. In Ware’s story, Rowan is in jail, frantically soliciting help from a lawyer because, as she tells him, “I didn’t kill anyone.”
Immediately, the reader knows there has been a death, and very soon we learn it’s the demise of a child. Several characters generate suspicion based on their actions. The suspense makes it impossible to put this book down. I would wager that no reader will be able to figure out the ending that’s revealed in the final pages.
A poison garden on the grounds of the Elincourt’s provides a hint to the nature of evil that exists on the estate. It has been gated, but the children know exactly how to reach in and unlock the gate. (I enjoyed reading later about real poison gardens that exist...the most famous being in England.)
Ware has written the type of book that fans of psychological, mystery and suspense fiction will treasure. She’s written four other thrillers, and I’ve already purchased one of her first books, and have requested the others from my local library. I can’t wait!