Please help me. I didn’t kill anyone.” With an opening as compelling as this, it’s impossible to stop turning the pages of The Turn of the Key in a frenzied manner.
Rowan, a 27-year-old nanny, has been arrested for murdering one of the children in her charge. The case is splashed all over the media, and she is painted as an incarnation of evil. In desperation, she writes to Mr. Wrexham, a brilliant advocate she has heard about from fellow prisoners, and appeals to him to help her.
A major part of the book is a series of letters to Mr. Wrexham, in which Rowan tells her side of the story starting with the fact that she wasn’t even looking for a new job when she stumbled upon the ad, and reveals damning things about herself too. She is not goody goody like Mary Poppins, nor is she remotely as efficient. She swears, smokes on the sly and occasionally enjoys a drink or two. She even bashfully admits to occasional urges to slap recalcitrant children in her charge, urges that she claims she has never carried out.
Rowan acts the part of Perfect Nanny rather well, though: “Almost exactly one week after I had opened the email from Sandra Elincourt, I was on my way to Scotland, doing my very best impression of Rowan the Perfect Nanny. My normally bushy hair was brushed to a shine and tamed into a neat, jaunty ponytail, my nails were buffed and my make-up unobtrusively on point, and I was wearing my best ‘approachable yet responsible, fun yet hard-working, professional yet not too proud to get down on my knees and clear up sick’ outfit—a neat tweed skirt and a white cotton fitted shirt with a cashmere cardigan over the top.”
The job is no cake walk either: the parents dash off on a long work trip a day after she arrives for one of their architectural projects, and she’s left in a remote part of Scotland with hostile children, a book of detailed instructions, and strong rumours that the house is haunted: “I didn’t believe in the supernatural — I should say that up front, Mr Wrexham. And so the legends of the house didn’t bother me at all, in fact the whole idea of nannies and servants driven out by mysterious spooky happenings seemed more than a little ridiculous — almost Victorian. But the fact was that four women had left the Elincourts’ employment in the last year. Having the bad luck to engage one nervous, superstitious employee seemed quite likely. Getting four in a row seemed... less so.” One of the children had warned her off, telling her not to take the job on the day of her interview itself: “The ghosts, she had sobbed. The ghosts wouldn’t like it.”
The ghost factor is as unsettling as the fact that the entire house is wired and monitored. Her employer, Sandra, tells her with a touch of pride that this old Victorian lodge has been converted into a ‘smart’ house because her husband is a tech freak, and besides, “Architects must try cool gadgets.” There are no regular doorbells, switches, taps, etc, and it can be challenging. The entire family is signed on to the “Happy” app, which takes care of everything, including reading bedtime stories to the children. Rowan’s bedroom too isn’t spared and she flings a sock at what could well be a surveillance camera on the ceiling: “It couldn’t be a camera...could it? But no. That would be more than creepy. That would be illegal surveillance. I was an employee—and I had a reasonable expectation of privacy, or whatever the legal terminology was.” You may well find yourself falling out of love with Siri, Alexa and all the other lovely AI ladies and gents as you read on.
Rowan’s nights are disturbed by mysterious creaks and footsteps, and sudden, loud bursts of music. She spends them frozen in fear. Her sleep-deprived days are fraught with confusion, as strange things happen and objects mysteriously vanish or appear. But while she knows that she really should leave this house “of hidden eyes and ears and speakers,” something unexplained yet powerful holds her back: “Remember why you’re here, I thought grimly.” This is the key to The Turn of the Key.
Almost everyone is a suspect in this chilling Gothic yet modern story. While the beginning has a brisk pace, the middle lags with those repetitive ghostly creaky episodes, but not enough to make you yawn. Fortunately, Rowan is such an interesting character, she lifts all the boring bits. We learn more about her as the story unfolds, her past included and the unhappy relationship with her hard-to-please mother. She’s not made of cardboard—she’s real, warts and all.
Friendly advice: keep beverages and snacks close at hand for the last few chapters, because you may find it impossible to tear yourself away from the book—that’s when the story hurtles at breakneck speed to a conclusion that will make you go “Gosh”....