In September 2017 at HMP Charnworth, 27-year-old Rowan Caine desperately writes to a solicitor called Mr. Wrexham. Rowan's case has been all over the papers, her name in every headline. She pleads that she's innocent as she cries into the page in a mess of recrimination. She wants to clear her head and get the right side of her story straight, about the wanted ad and the large family that were seeking an experienced live-in nanny. Eking out a living working at a nursery in Peckham, Rowan jumps at the opportunity to work as a nanny in someone's else's house, with free accommodation and all of her bills paid, "even down to the car."
In an effort to convince the nouveau-riche Elincourt family that she's the person they're looking for, Rowan travels to Carn Bridge, Scotland, where she's picked up by scrubby, good-looking Jack Grant, the Elincourts' handyman. Rowan already knows that Sandra and Bill Elincourt were rich, but their home, Heatherbrea House, chokes her up with longing for this life and all that it represents. The front of house looks like a modest Victorian lodge with its lichened and weathered soft gray stone. The back, however, is modeled in the fashion of a "smart" home--a house in reverse, a "Victorian stuffiness" taken over by a space-age modernity. Indeed, the whole house is space-age in its complexity, sleek and modern in its styling, "nothing faux Victorian."
Ware's latest "isolated country house story" conflates Rowen's past and present, where the real are either dead and alive. Horror lies in the fluidity of Heatherbrea itself. Rowen finds a note left by the previous governess, and an the eerie, little drawing of Maddie's gives Rowan a strange feeling. Is distracted Sandra Elincourt, who leaves Rowen in charge of Maddie, Ellie and Petra, somehow responsible for the malfunctioning iPad connected to all the floors? Why is Sandra's husband Bill so greedy, selfish and self-centered? Bill barely asks Rowen a single personal question.
Because this is a Ruth Ware novel, there's lots of "things that go bump in the night." From the intricacies of the house's integrated electronic control panels to the hard work and careful planning that has bought Rowen here: "suddenly the supernatural stuff doesn't seem so mysterious after all." And what of the poison garden, created by the previous owner, a sad old man who lived here after the death of his child? Petra is always cranky and fretful while Maddie and Ellie refuse to come out of their room. Why is the cook, Jean McKenzie, so unfriendly?
Rowen realizes she wants to escape from the evil, twisted imaginings of the poison garden and its nightmarish overgrown tangle of plants. Through Rowen's long days and sleepless nights, things get lost, keys fall down and necklaces get tidied away into pockets and drawers only to be unearthed days later. In the village, there are hints of murder, hauntings and death. Rowen proves to be a far from perfect nanny, with her buttoned-up cardigans, her pasted-on file and CV that is revealed to have never really existed. Ware accelerates Rowen's loneliness and isolation, the "craziness of the house" centering around "the cameras and everything else." An odd sensation of vulnerability plagues Rowen, reflected through her recollections of Maddie's reedy little voice whispering "the ghosts wouldn't like it."
While the story is clichéd, Ware's storytelling skills make the spooky goings-on in the sinister house feel fresh and new. Is the issue one of a woman undergoing a severe emotional breakdown? Was Rowen coerced for the murder of a child she says she didn't commit? At story's end, she is torn apart as the forces of evil tighten their grip around Heatherbrea House in a tense and tragic reckoning.