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Book review: The Turn of the Key

The novel gives a fresh take on a realistic protagonist.
Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Chart topping author Ruth Ware may best be known for her domination of the crime thriller genre—but In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway pale in comparison to The Turn of the Key. In an intricate blend of her standard twisty thriller with never-before-done horror inspired elements, The Turn of the Key provides an irresistible binge read.

When something is clearly out of place, red flags immediately begin to raise—like when an item goes missing when it’s known that it hasn’t been touched. Take that gut-wrenching discomfort that someone could be watching and put it into a Victorian era house in Northern Scotland. For Rowan, the new nanny, the house doesn’t just feel like it’s watching: it actually is. 

When Rowan stumbles across a classified ad for a live-in nanny position with a generous salary, she ventures to the picturesque Scottish Highlands. Once she arrives at Heatherbrae House, she meets the tech-obsessed family and it all seems too good to be true.

What she doesn’t know could be the end of her: the house has a history of death and hauntings known for driving nannies mad. When a child is found dead on the property and Rowan becomes the key suspect, she protests that she is innocent.

The entire narrative is told in letter format, from Rowan to a potential lawyer as she writes from prison. She acknowledges her mistakes and approaches her telling of the story with brutal honesty.

Or does she?

From the get-go, readers know that things won’t end well for Rowan. The matter that readers must solve isn’t what will happen but why.

To understand the final events from the first page requires a specially crafted story to keep readers not only engaged but flying through the pages. Ware’s language paints idyllic pictures of a dream life in the Scottish highlands, with a dreamy Victorian home that readers get to enjoy alongside her.

Once things begin to not appear quite as they seem, the psychologically thrilling aspects of the book shine. The Turn of the Key is not overly dark or violent, but it slowly builds the tension until everything must come crashing down around her.

As a protagonist, Rowan is remarkably normal. She does not fall into the genre’s tropes of the heavy drinking sleuth who will not rest until the case is closed but rather a just bystander looking for a job. Any reader can easily understand her. That’s what makes Rowan’s slow unravelling as unnerving as it is: she makes sense and so does her insanity.

When she begins to lose sleep over the mysterious happenings in the house or acts out in paranoia after realizing she too could be watched by the smart home tech, her reactions are logical. Having a genuinely clever protagonist breathes an air of new life into the genre.

The less that is known going into this book the better. Each detail matters, as each functions as a personal account for why Rowan believes she knows the identity of the true killer. In a seamless blending of Gothic horror and contemporary worries, The Turn of the Key effortlessly establishes itself as one of the top books of the year.

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