The book I read this week is a fairly classic example of a story told by an unreliable narrator. It is also written in epistolary form, which is to say in the form of a letter to another person. You might also view this book as an example of Victorian Gothic, although it takes place in 2017, because of the setting and some of the events.
A narrator always serves as a filter for her story, and if that story is told in first person, then the only person’s viewpoint we are able to discover is that of the storyteller. As readers, we generally believe that the narrator is truthful and is providing, as far as she is able, an accurate view of the story. But an unreliable narrator is one whose version of the story the reader comes to realize cannot be trusted; there is a point in the narration at which the reader discovers there are lies involved, a hidden agenda is revealed, or the nature of the narrator is discovered to be criminal, crazy, naive, pathological, or any other aberration that would call the person’s views into question. Motivations are revealed that cast doubt on the narrator’s veracity, and the reader has to decide whether the narrator is being willfully deceptive, or is just deceiving herself.
Whatever the case, it takes a certain level of skill to write an unreliable narrator that readers will continue to follow even when they have discovered this deceptive nature. The protagonist in The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware, is one such character.
The book opens with a set of incomplete letters, each addressed to a solicitor, a Mr. Wrexham—impassioned pleas for him to listen to her story, to believe her, and to defend her. Rowan Caine is a nanny sitting in jail awaiting trial for the murder of one of her charges. She already has an attorney, but believes (with some justification) that he is one of the reasons she is behind bars, and is looking for someone who will hear her out instead of dismissing the (admittedly odd) details of her story as irrelevant. Eventually she manages to push through all her false starts and put the events down on paper for Mr. Wrexham.
It proves to be a disturbing and convoluted explanation, with multiple reveals as we discover that Rowan is not who she pretended to be, on at least two separate levels. It also furnishes plenty of questions about the motivations of the other characters, but once you realize that she has lied about some significant events, you are provided with many reasons to doubt her experiences.
The story’s gothic elements arise from the setting, which is an old Victorian mansion set in the wilds of Scotland that has been bought and massively but jarringly remodeled by a husband-and-wife team of architects. The front half of the house maintains its pristine Victorian façade and ornate interior, while the rear has been demolished and replaced with an über-modern structure of cement and glass that provides a jarring disconnect when moving from one part of the mansion to another. And it also turns out that when the mansion was stripped and refinished, certain secrets of its architecture remained unknown to the builders, while other aspects of the house are almost too well known through its surveillance app that provides a view and a microphone to almost every room.
The couple in question, Bill and Sandra Elincourt, have four children—a teenager, an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, and a toddler. They have gone through four nannies within the past year, and are looking for someone qualified, reliable, and without a surfeit of imagination or superstition to take responsibility while they are pursuing their busy careers. Enter Rowan Caine, beguiled by the generous salary, the beautiful house, and the apparently well-behaved children. But when the Elincourts take off for a few weeks of conventions and client meetings, things begin to disintegrate, starting with the behavior of the children and ending with a series of strange events that may or may not be related to the remote controls installed in the house.
This is a suspenseful story, with vivid description and a gripping, slightly ominous feel throughout. The story builds to its conclusion, which is both cryptic and satisfying. The only thing I am pondering is whether I loved or hated the ending. It’s plausible, it explains much, but the result it implies is vague enough that I had to read it a couple of times to decide what I thought and whether I believed it.
For readers who are looking for a thrill, who enjoy a tale with twists, and who embrace the ploy of an unreliable narrator, The Turn of the Key will satisfy.