Hal Westaway is in a tight spot. Struggling to make ends meet and hounded by loan sharks, she is becoming increasingly desperate. So when she receives a mysterious letter that alludes to a deceased grandmother and a possibly substantial inheritance, it comes as the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem. Hester Westaway was not Hal’s grandmother. She realizes that the cold-reading skills she has developed as a tarot reader might help her to claim the money, and she embarks on a risky, last-ditch effort to the country estate of Trepassen. Once she gets there, Hal begins to understand that there is something very wrong with the other descendants of Hester Westaway and the inheritance she is there to collect.
I’ve read two of Ruth Ware’s previous novels, and found myself rather underwhelmed. In a Dark Dark Wood lacked any meaningful characterization, and The Woman in Cabin 10 left very little impression at all. I decided to give Ware one more chance because the cover art for The Death of Mrs. Westaway reminded me of the classic gothic horror novel Rebecca. And there are certain similarities to du Maurier’s work here. A neglected manor home in the wilds of England. A dead woman who continues to wield great power over those who come after her. A terrible secret that haunts those under the roof of the manor home. There’s even a Mrs. Danvers-esque character who sole function seems to be spouting ominous threats in the dead of night.
Hal Westaway would be an easy character to dislike if she weren’t quite so pitiful. After all, she does set out for the estate of Trepassen with the intention of committing fraud. However, Ware introduces Hal as a girl constantly teetering on the brink of destitution. She is young, alone, and trying desperately to keep her life together. We empathize with Hal, so it is easy to root for her despite her less than noble objectives. Riddled with guilt over what she means to do, her constant flip-flopping becomes a bit exhausting, but ultimately made sense and helps to keep her sympathetic to the reader.
It helps that none of the other characters are terribly likeable, and all of Hal’s newfound “uncles” are a little one-note. Harding is gruff and impatient. Abel is apologetic and emotionally damaged. Ezra is charming and irreverent. The other family members bring little to the table. Constantly lingering in the background is the malignant presence of the deceased Mrs. Westaway, who I would like to have seen fleshed out a little more. Her motivations are murky at best, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so truly unfeeling towards their family.
Overall this is a mystery novel that focuses on the secrets that always seem to haunt families with old money. I initially feared that this novel would follow the current popular model and end with a series of “shocking” twists and turns, but was presently surprised by the restraint shown by Ware. She employs echoes of the old gothic style, complete with myriad descriptions of decaying walls, gloomy hallways, and misty fields. While not a horror novel by any description, there is a certain amount of creeping tension that builds through the pages.
I enjoyed this novel much more than my previous two experiences with Ware’s work. It felt more mature and composed, as if the author had decided to stop catering to the expectation that there needs to be a thousand surprise reveals in order to make a satisfying climax. I’ll keep my eye out for Ruth Ware’s next novel.
My rating: 4/5
Happy reading everyone!