Ruth Ware’s homage to The Turn of the Screw is filled with all of the best gothic elements: an unreliable narrator, an isolated setting, creepy children and a house that functions as its own menacing character. Part epistolary novel, part psychological thriller, The Turn of the Key is compulsively readable and will keep readers guessing until the very last page.
Rowan Caine worries that the live-in nanny job she’s secured may be a little too good to be true. The pay is outstanding, the residence is a beautiful estate in the Scottish Highlands, and the parents want her to start right now. Almost immediately her fears are validated. Her charges, 8-year-old Maddie and 5-year-old Ellie, are fractious and have already burned through several caregivers. The home, Heatherbrae House, is a “smart home,” where every convenience is controlled by an app named “Happy” and every room except the bathrooms are monitored by security cameras. Left alone with two mutinous charges and a house that can be controlled remotely is enough to stretch Rowan to her last nerve.
Those elements are certainly chilling enough (especially when the “Happy” app nightmarishly malfunctions), but Ware expertly weaves in a supernatural element as well. Already fraught, Rowan begins experiencing strange events, like the sound of someone pacing in the supposedly empty, walled-off space above her room, and when objects start going missing or moving seemingly on their own. Then there is the story of a small girl who tragically died of an accidental poisoning in the house decades earlier.
A rational person might quit, but as the novel progresses, we learn that Rowan has secrets of her own, ones she certainly doesn’t want her employers uncovering. All of these twists and turns might feel unwieldy in the hands of another writer, but Ware is adept at managing multiple plot threads and using them to shock her reader.
The beauty of The Turn of the Key is in how it takes the tropes central to the gothic genre, like the isolated haunted house, and gives them a 21st-century spin while still managing to feel fresh and surprising to even the most gothic-averse reader.
Straddling the line between horror and thriller, this novel will delight fans of both genres.