Harvill Secker | 2019 (8 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Nursery nurse Rowan Caine is in a bit of a rut and looking for something to change her life. She finds it when she stumbles across an ad for a job working as a live-in nanny for a family with four children, living in Heatherbrae House in the Highlands. The salary is enormous and when Rowan visits the house for an interview she falls in love with it. Once a large Victorian house, parts of it have been transformed into a ‘smart house’. The owners, Bill and Sandra, are architects and so they use their house to test out these state of the art systems which result in a beautiful home that runs like clockwork. Rowan gets the job but as soon as she starts, Bill and Sandra have to go away for work, leaving Rowan alone to look after the children. The parents have literally only just left the drive when the nightmare begins.
These are troubled children. Nannies have come and gone with upsetting frequency; one not even lasting the first night. Rowan has her hands full with the three little ones and she hasn’t even met the teenager yet, who is away at boarding school but soon to return. But having initially loved this house, Rowan comes to fear it. Everything is outside her control, there are strange noises, impossible things happen, and that’s even before Rowan discovers the secrets in the garden and in the house itself. But all this is in the past because Rowan is telling this tale in a letter to her solicitor, written in her cell where she waits to be tried for murder. A child is dead. Rowan needs someone to believe she is innocent. To save her.
I was drawn to the premise of The Turn of the Key and I immediately fell for the menace of the extraordinary Heatherbrae House. It’s wonderfully described. It’s modern but still extremely creepy. This is an interesting take on the haunted house theme and Heatherbrae House is certainly the star of the novel.
I have found Ruth Ware’s books a little hit and miss in the past, with some I’ve loved, such as The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs Westaway, and others I’ve struggled with, namely In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Lying Game. Unfortunately, The Turn of the Key falls into the latter category, although there were elements that I enjoyed.
I had several issues with the novel and one is its format. The whole book is supposed to be a letter to a solicitor but this just doesn’t seem realistic in the least. I think it also spoils the book’s sense of suspense and tension. I also didn’t care particularly for Rowan but that doesn’t matter too much. More significant is my dissatisfaction with the ending and for the way in which the story is developed. I can’t say too much as I don’t want to give anything away but the way in which this story concludes seems, to me, extremely contrived. I loved the smart house and the way in which it’s described. It is genuinely frightening. But in the end none of this seemed to matter much to how things developed, which I thought was such a shame.
There is some good writing here as the scene is thoroughly set. It is possible that some readers may tire of the meticulously detailed account of what seems like every moment of the day and night but I thought this was well done. The teenager is just another rebellious, unpleasant thriller teen but the younger children have an innocence and charm that really appealed to me.
I will always read Ruth Ware’s novels because I know that they can be excellent. She certainly has some interesting ideas and always sets her novels in beautifully and atmospherically evoked places. I won’t forget Heatherbrae House in a hurry.