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Book review: The Death of Mrs Westaway is a family drama that’s also a breathtaking thriller

The fourth book by author Ruth Ware comes close to perfectly fitting the description ‘tour de force’. This is a richly detailed, perfectly measured story, never rambling.

books Updated: Aug 02, 2018 14:26 IST
Sanchita Guha
Sanchita Guha
Hindustan Times
Book review,Ruth Ware,The Death of Mrs Westaway
Author Ruth Ware has so far been most famous for her second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10.(Photo: Instagram/Ruthwarewriter)

Since The Woman in Cabin 10 hit the bookshelves two years ago, author Ruth Ware has been the writer whose name on a book cover is guaranteed to have a copy at least picked up for a flip-through. No wonder, the cover of The Death of Mrs Westaway introduces her as the writer of that book, which was her second.

After this novel, her fourth, the writer won’t need any further introductions, perhaps — for the book comes close to perfectly fitting the description ‘tour de force’. The story is a family drama that’s also a breathtaking thriller, unfolding within the tight circle of an ancestral home.

Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway — young, broke, threatened by a loan shark, and eking out a living in Brighton through tarot reading — one day gets a puzzling letter: it tells her that her grandmother, Mrs Hester Westaway, has just died and that she’s among the beneficiaries of a “substantial” estate. It’s puzzling because Hal only knows about her maternal grandparents, who’ve been dead for ages; she was brought up by a single mother, and was orphaned at eighteen by a car that hit her mother.

This is the fourth book by Ruth Ware.

To her credit, despite her dire circumstances, Hal doesn’t rush off to claim the legacy — because she knows it’s not hers, and impersonation is a crime. But soon enough, with danger too close, she flees, headed for a town far away from Brighton, about to walk into a family she plans to deceive, drawing upon her ‘people skills’ as a tarot reader.

The build-up to the first mini-climax — the reading of Mrs Westaway’s will — is masterfully done. At every step, the reader has a full view of Hal’s extreme trepidation, but also her astonishing courage and presence of mind, the way she navigates the choppy waters of family conversations without giving anything away. The entire story is told from one perspective: that of Hal.

From the moment the will is read out, the story moves from the straightforward path of deception to a maze-like structure, with Hal in the middle of it. Who is she, really? What does it mean to have the name Westaway?

Book details
  • Book title: The Death of Mrs Westaway
  • Author: Ruth Ware
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Price: Rs 599

The legacy she receives is far more than the small reward Hal had hoped for; indeed, it’s almost a burden, and she has to bear it somehow: “What she was about to do was crossing a line — not just in terms of the risk she was taking, but also in the way she was about to use her own small tragedy in the service of something mean and dishonest. But there was no way around it.”

This is a richly detailed, perfectly measured story, never rambling. Its ordinary yet extraordinary protagonist works through the riddle of her own identity, only to discover what horrors have laced her life.

First Published: Aug 02, 2018 14:21 IST