Some things are best not tampered with. The Gothic trope in fiction is one of those things that provides endless excitement to readers who like their narratives with a dash of menace and a large serving of family secrets. The Death Of Mrs Westaway, Ruth Ware’s fourth novel, is a slow-burn psychological thriller with all of the Gothic elements intact: a decaying mansion in Cornwall, inclement English weather, dead mothers, suspicious uncles, and hostile, inscrutable matriarchs and housekeepers.
Ware – who made a name for herself with her debut thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood (2015), and two successful follow-ups, The Woman In Cabin 10 (2016) and The Lying Game (2017) – is no stranger to creating slow, gripping intensity and producing pacey, twisty reveals.
The Death Of Mrs Westaway unashamedly borrows from Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, and while the end result is less captivating than the best works of those two authors’, the book is still a thoroughly absorbing read.
The story opens in Brighton, where young Harriet Westaway – who goes by the name Hal – returns to her tiny, cold flat after working at the pier on a rainy day to find a mysterious letter – that sets off a chain of events. The letter announces the death of one Mrs Westaway, and invites Hal, Mrs Westaway’s granddaughter, to the funeral in Cornwall. But Hal’s mother recently died in a hit-and-run, and she has never known her father, so as far as she knows, she has no grandmother with a stately manor in Cornwall.
But young Hal is in a desperate position: halting her studies after her mother’s death, she took over her mother’s tarot-reading stall at the pier and can barely make ends meet. She is being pursued by dodgy moneylenders and has literally no one to whom she can turn. The prospect of an inheritance is a welcome relief, even if it might not be her own.
More than that, Hal finds herself intrigued by the letter and the Westaways. She Googles them and creates a false identity to befriend the Westaway children on Face-book. Old Mrs Westaway left behind four children; three sons and a daughter. However, only the sons seem to exist while the daughter seems to have disappeared from the family’s online annals.
When Hal makes her way to Trepassen House for the funeral, her first moment meeting with her family has her drenched to the bone and succumbing to a fever. Throughout, there is a constant sense of anxiety as Hal counts the exact change for train and cab fare. Her lack of money lends the book a sense of realistic urgency that would be all-too familiar for anyone who has ever been confronted by an empty bank balance.
And indeed what Ware does well is to de-romanticise the allure of the Gothic mystery. The secretive sense of glamour that pervades a book like Rebecca du Maurier’s Rebecca is rendered banal and inconvenient here: The money is low in Trepassen House, and the Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper, Mrs Warren, runs a tight ship.
There is tepid coffee and cheap white bread, mouldy marmalade, and margarine for breakfast; Hal’s room is tiny, with disturbing bars across the window and a window itself that won’t shut, letting in the cold December air. Hal’s constantly getting wet in the rain, and because she has only a few staple pieces of clothes due to her lack of funds, her shoes are perpetually damp, her fingers always frozen.
This sense of discomfort is conveyed to the reader, and the brief spell of being on a massive estate in Cornwall, digging up family secrets among reticent people who are complete strangers, is rendered acutely for what it is: a unique form of hell.
Hal is a likeable narrator despite her feeling ill-adjusted to the world, and her introspection is rarely self-pitying. But Ware’s prose is no match for the beauty and poetry of du Maurier’s classic. The story builds slowly to its conclusion in a way that can drag. Ware’s serviceable writing is a not a treat to savour on its own and it needs the wheels of a well-honed plot to keep the reader’s attention.
In the end, however, while it might not all come as a surprising twist, the convoluted path to get to the denouement is worth a read if you enjoy Gothic-influenced family sagas and thrillers.
This one is for one of those nights when you want to curl up on the couch with a hot drink and an immersive read.
The Death Of Mrs Westaway
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Harvill Secker, thriller