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FICTION: A MODERN GOTHIC TALE

September 02, 2018

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"One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told.”

This how Ruth Ware’s latest novel, The Death of Mrs Westaway, begins. Not, as the title would have one believe, with a crime scene or a mysterious death — though there are plenty of those in the story — but with a cryptic poem. A perfect prelude to the drama that unfolds in the ensuing pages.

The novel follows Harriet Westaway, also known as Hal, a 21-year-old orphan struggling to make ends meet ever since her mother’s death in a car crash. Working as a tarot reader on a beach at Brighton’s West Pier, she manages to eke out a meagre living. A small, run-down and poorly heated attic flat, her tarot-reading trade and a mounting pile of bills are all that Hal inherits from her mother. Death threats from a loan shark to whom she is indebted beyond her means only add to her heap of woes.

Driving the plot are dead relatives, strange wills and ominous birds

Then one fateful evening a letter arrives on her doorstep, naming Hal as one of the beneficiaries of a large estate in Cornwall left behind by a grandmother she never knew existed. At first, Hal is convinced that she has been mistaken for someone she’s not and her first instinct is to write back and report the mistake. But then, like a hand offering to yank her out of the quicksand of debt, the letter presents Hal with an idea; she will travel to Cornwall and attend the funeral, present herself as the rightful heir, claim her due share of the inheritance and return to Brighton. This is a difficult choice facing her, for she is convinced that she’s about to commit fraud. Guilt constantly nags her conscience, but seeing as this is the only way out of the mess she has got herself into, Hal travels to Cornwall where she is greeted by the grim facade of Trespassen House, made all the more portentous with its yew trees, swarms of magpies, the cold and grumpy housekeeper Mrs Warren and an eccentric bunch of uncles.

Little does Harriet know that something else — something dark — is on the cards when she uncovers horrifying secrets about the Westaways and finds herself trapped in a strange situation. Soon a chain of events is set in motion, partly by Hal’s curiosity, but mainly by the death of Mrs Westaway, whose explosive will has opened up a Pandora’s Box that some people in the family will go to great lengths to keep closed.

The story is narrated from the third-person point of view of Hal and is peppered with journal entries by a writer who remains anonymous for a substantial part of the book. These mysterious entries serve as flashbacks to the past that Hal is trying to explore and, once readers have guessed at the writer’s identity, help them piece together a mystery that twists and turns faster than one can turn a page.

One of the most interesting features of the novel is the presence of magpies; seen as indicators of bad luck in British lore, the birds — along with Hal’s tarot cards — are used as powerful symbols of superstition and fate. The use of the aforementioned poem, which is a traditional children’s nursery rhyme about magpies, in the epigraph fills the reader with an ominous sense of foreboding from the outset. You know something gruesome is about to occur and you await it fearfully, yet impatiently, drawn in by Ware’s masterful storytelling.

While the author does a worthy job in sketching out her characters, one that is not explored in as much detail — at least to my satisfaction — is that of the late Mrs Westaway herself. Throughout the story she is depicted as a stereotypical aristocratic snob: a cold, difficult and arrogant woman who ends up driving all her children away, but till the end and even long after one is finished with the book, one is left wondering as to her motivations behind acting the way she did.

Never believe it, Hal. Never believe your own lies. Because superstition was a trap — that was what she had learned, in the years of plying her trade on the pier. Touching wood, crossing fingers, counting magpies — they were lies, all of them. False promises, designed to give the illusion of control and meaning in a world in which the only destiny came from yourself. You can’t predict the future, Hal, her mother had reminded her, time and time again. You can’t influence fate, or change what’s out of your control. But you can choose what you yourself do with the cards you’re dealt. That was the truth, Hal knew.— Excerpt from the book

As someone who has read Ware’s debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood, released back in 2015, it is hard not to notice that she has come really far with her latest mystery venture. Without a doubt, her new offering contains all the ingredients that one looks for in a gripping, atmospheric summer read. With a fascinating cast of characters, a large Gothic mansion in a countryside setting and a swift-paced plotline, Ware has managed to create a story that is all too reminiscent of our favourite classics, such as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The novel is truly a testament to Ware’s growing talent as a mystery writer with three other bestsellers — among them The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10 — already under her belt.

The reviewer is an undergraduate student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

The Death of Mrs Westaway
By Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press, UK
ISBN: 978-1501156212
368pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 2nd, 2018