The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Compare and contrast…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…

The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.

Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.

Ruth Ware

The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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65 thoughts on “The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, FictionFan, that if one’s going to pay homage to a particular book, it’s got to be a very good homage. And sometimes the possibly-unreliable narrator can work, too – it doesn’t always for me.I’ll say that I’ve liked Ware’s ability to build suspense, so it’s good to hear that the last third worked for you. Hmm…bit of a mixed bag, though. Still, glad to hear some things worked for you.

    • So many authors seem to be referencing the greats at the moment, and I rarely think it works to their advantage. It immediately starts me making comparisons. I suspect this one might work better for people who haven’t read The Turn of the Screw, or at least not as recently as I have. An interesting idea but, as usual, I ended up feeling she’d have done better to write her own thing rather than re-writing someone else’s, even though she did it pretty well.

    • I know – I don’t understand why so many authors seem to be doing it at the moment. It always invites comparison and that rarely works to the new version’s advantage. So much better to write your own story and let people judge it on its own merits!

    • I wish authors would stop retelling classics and write their own stories instead. I loved her last book The Death of Mrs Westaway and I’m sure part of it was because I wasn’t constantly thinking of another book…

  2. I’m on the wait list at the public library for The Turn of the Key. Having read The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I had looked forward to reading The Turn of the Key — especially since it takes place in Scotland. Now I’m not so sure, but I appreciate your honest review. With lowered expectations, maybe I’ll still enjoy it.

    • To be fair, I’ve seen several glowing reviews of this one – I very rarely like books that so obviously reference a classic, so it’s probably as much me as the book. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than I did!

  3. I will probably add this to my TBR, but not make it a priority, as like you, I have reservations about modern novels which are basically just re-telling a classic. I have heard good things in general about Ruth Ware however, so I’ll give it a shot sometime.
    I can’t pretend the Turn of the Screw is my favorite book in the world, but it is a great classic within the horror genre.

    • I admired The Turn of the Screw but I found it left rather an unpleasant aftertaste. However, if you’re looking to try Ruth Ware I highly recommend her last one, The Death of Mrs Westaway, which I thought was far better than this one. It’s got Gothic touches too, but I don’t think it’s referencing another specific book – if it is, I missed it! I never know why authors think it’s a good idea to make their readers think of a great book while reading their not so great adaptation of it…

  4. I was quite intrigued by this one when I first read about it, but I’m not so sure now. I think I’ll pass on it. It’s not like I don’t have a bazillion other things to read. 😜

    • To be fair, other people seem to be enjoying it more than me – I rarely like books that reference a classic quite so obviously. It always makes me compare, and that rarely works for the later book…

  5. I enjoyed this a bit more than you did, but I still haven’t read The Turn of the Screw so wasn’t making comparisons. I’m glad you still found a few things to like! This was my first Ruth Ware book but I’m planning to read The Woman in Cabin 10 soon.

    • I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read The Turn of the Screw quite recently – comparisons rarely work in favour of the later book, I find. I loved her previous book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, though, so I hope you enjoy The Woman in Cabin 10 – I’m planning to get to it someday…!

  6. Oh, that is slightly disappointing. I had high hopes for this one and considered spending an audio credit on it. Now I am not so sure. I am not familiar with The Turn of the Screw, perhaps that will make it a better experience?

    • I admired The Turn of the Screw, but I can’t say I altogether liked it – it left a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste. However, I loved Ruth Ware’s earlier book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, so you might want to consider that one if you haven’t already read it. I thought it was considerably better than this one… 😀

  7. I’ve read a couple reviews of this now and I’m glad to read your thoughts too. One of the interesting things about Turn of the Screw is the light it shines on society and social hierarchy. It doesn’t sound like Ware offers any of that here. It does sound like it would solidify my unease with the concept of “smart houses”. (Oh, and my children had yogurt and granola for breakfast!)

    • Hahaha – I’m glad to know about the breakfast menu – I’d been worrying! 😂 Yes, this was very much entertainment and nothing more, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t kept making me think of a more substantial book. I really don’t understand why authors think that’s a good idea. Ha! The smart house sounded dreadful – and not very smart! I doubt if I’d hire the architect parents to design my house… 😉

        • There seems to be a real trend of people referring to or rewriting classics at the moment, and it so rarely works. It must take a lot of self-confidence to be willing to compare oneself to the greats…

            • Yes, it’s odd how things go in trends. I suppose they always did, but I’ve really only been aware of it since I started reviewing – I think that makes me think more about the books I read than I used to. A double-edged sword, perhaps!

            • Yes, reading a constant diet of new releases can get a bit wearing after a while. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying retreating back into classics and vintage stuff for a change.

            • I think I might do that too! Right now I feel way too behind on ARCs and reading the Giller longlist and all the new releases I’ve been excited about this summer but soon I hope to just focus on classics for a bit!

            • I’ve cut right back on requests for ARCs and fortunately only a couple of publishers ever send me unsolicited books. And I must say I’m enjoying my reading far more this year as a result.

  8. Well, gee, this is one I’ll be passing on, too. I’m not a fan of retelling classics, though I did find myself intrigued at the premise. Sad that so much promise didn’t really hold up.

    • Yes, it sounded intriguing but unfortunately these retellings never really work for me – I don’t know why authors do it. But then, lots of people love them, so I suppose they know what they’re about…

    • Thank you! The only other one I’ve read is The Death of Mrs Westaway which I thought was miles better than this. I’d intended to back track and read her earlier ones, but now I’m not so sure I will…

  9. Probably not for me, because the thought of looking after four children is my idea of a horror story. Along with so many of the people who have commented, I agree that retelling a classic novel is a dangerous business for an author.

  10. The constant repetition & descriptions of everyday events (as with the children’s breakfast choices!) seems to be a recent writing trend in crime/mystery books (possibly as a means of upping the page count for publishers?). It’s the reason I’ve abandoned a number of these types of books this year – too much hyperbole & endless detailed descriptions of visits/car journeys/daily tasks etc etc. By the time I reach the actual investigation of a mystery or crime, I’m already bored by the whole set up!

    • Yes, I think publishers must demand 350-400 pages when in fact usually about 250 pages is enough for a crime or thriller novel, and even shorter for horror. It’s definitely part of the reason I’ve almost given up on contemporary crime in favour of vintage – if they cut out all the detective’s angst and daily routine and so on the books would be shorter, tighter and better – in my not-so-humble opinion… 😉

  11. I am disturbed to see this only getting three stars after our agreement over the brilliant Mrs Westaway. I was hoping Ware, who is the only one-off thriller writer I read, would be going on to even greater things. I think I’ll wait until the library gets a copy in rather than buying myself.

    • Sadly, I didn’t think this came even close to Mrs Westaway in terms of atmosphere or plotting. I’m now rethinking my plan to go back and read her earlier books in case Mrs W was a one-off…

  12. I think that ‘rewriting’ classic books or movies is definitely a trend right now and suspect that the publishing world is encouraging it. Lots of things going on in that publishing world right now. Have we almost gotten our fill of the ‘psycho thriller’ trend? Maybe. I find that I am seeing more established mystery series authors trying their hands at standalone thrillers – some with success and some not so much. I always wonder whether this was something they had always wanted to do or try or if they were being gently ‘shoved’ into it by their publishers, editors, agents, whatever. Things to think about. I have not read this one yet, but I intend to. The whole ‘smart’ house thing is enough to give me the creeps. I’m planning on listening to all of Ruth Ware’s books again on audio. They are narrated by Imogen Church and she does a really good job. Right now, I’m going down the path with Shirley Jackson. Ha!

    • Yes, I’d love to know how much authors get pushed into things by publishers – quite a lot, I expect, since these sudden trends must come from somewhere. These classic retellings annoy me as much as the psychological thrillers and for the same reason – lack of originality. When you’ve read a couple of great original psychological thrillers why would you want to follow that by reading the same plot five hundred times, usually not written as well as the first time! I really enjoyed Ware’s earlier thriller though, The Death of Mrs Westaway, so I’m not writing her off on the basis of this one – hope you enjoy listening to them, and you might even tempt me to read her earlier ones if you give them glowing reviews… 😀

  13. There is something to be said for being ‘behind’ on an author. I’m about to finally get to Mrs Westaway. I’m quite happy to know that the next book is maybe not as good – saves me adding yet another to the tbr!

    • I loved Mrs Westaway so I hope you enjoy it – it had far more originality and I thought the Gothic features worked much better too. Sometimes an old Gothic house is far better than a modern ‘smart’ house even if the app starts playing up… 😉

  14. I’m number 16 on the waiting list for this at the library – after loving her last one my anticipation has been set pretty highly. Good to know to tamper it down a bit. I haven’t read The Turn of the Screw since high school so that should work in my favor! 🙂

    • I think not remembering The Turn of the Screw will help – I definitely enjoyed this one less because I’d read the Screw so recently. But truthfully I didn’t think this one was nearly as good as Mrs Westaway, which I also loved. Hopefully this one will work better for you, though… 😀

  15. I really appreciate your thoughts on this, FF. I think I’ve already mentioned I’ve not clicked well with this author and even though I bought this one ( 😬), I can tell it’s probably not going to work for me. Lovely, thoughtful review.

    • I’ve only read one of her books before and I loved it – The Death of Mrs Westaway – but her first two didn’t appeal to me, and this one, as you can see, didn’t thrill me much at all. I do hope it works better for you, though – I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews for it. You know me – picky! 😉

  16. I don’t think this is for me. I’m not a big fan of ghost stories so they’ve got to be amazingly good to tempt me. I’m not a writer but if I was i think I’d be trying to avoid comparisons to the classics as far as I could! As you said, you’ve got to be hugely confident of your own work to do something so audacious.

    • Yes, I don’t know that I’d want to set myself up for that kind of comparison – if I was as good as the greats, I’d like to come up with something distinctively mine rather than a retelling of theirs. And if I wasn’t as good, well, I wouldn’t be happy at all the reviews saying so!

  17. I agree with you that it rarely works when writers deliberately draw comparisons – maybe if they are writing either a parody or a continuation of the original work, but if they are just drawing on it it doesn’t often bear the comparison. I read Five Children on the Western Front a few years ago, and despite having loved both Five Children and It and All Quiet on the Western Front, I really liked it – but that was explicitly a sequel, rather than just references.

    • Yes, I think follow-up novels can work, though even then quite often what the author does to the characters can be annoying if it’s different from you wanted to happen to them. But retellings I don’t see the point of – ninety-nine times out of a hundred I’d rather be reading the original…

  18. I am JUST about to start reading this one, and I am so excited to read it, I was cringing while I read your review because I want so badly to enjoy it! It sounds like I will, but like you, I’ll be grumpy about certain things, unreliable narrators being one of them (for the rest of time, it seems haha).

    • I hope you do enjoy it! I’ve seen lots of positive reviews so don’t let my grumpiness put you off! I suspect if I hadn’t read The Turn of the Screw so recently I wouldn’t have been so critical, and you might enjoy the childcare aspects more than me… 😉

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