The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Ruth Ware
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Buy *The Death of Mrs. Westaway* by Ruth Wareonline

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press
384 pages
May 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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A spooky past. A house filled with dark memories. It's possible to describe Ware's tale while conveying nothing of this story's steady accumulation of dread. The author fills her narrative with Hal's sudden stay of execution in the form of letter from Penzance solicitor Robert Treswick. Hal has inherited a substantial estate, though she has no connection to Trespassen House, a rambling country estate in Cornwall and the ancestral home of Hester Westaway.

By day, Hal attends to her booth on Brighton's West Pier, where she reads fortunes with tarot cards. At night she returns to the chilly darkness of her attic flat in the Marine View Villas where she thinks about her mother, who died two years previously, the growing stack of bills, and the vicious two typed notes that were recently hand-delivered to her. Hal is good at reading people and perceptive enough to understand what it was her mother hadn't said: she's most certainly not a Westaway. The money's not hers and she can't claim it, though a little voice tells her: "you could claim this money, you know. If anyone can pull this off, it's you."

While the mystery behind Hal's inheritance lies at the heart of Ware's novel, much of what keeps us turning the pages are Hal's struggles to play the part of dutiful granddaughter. Arriving on the train from Brighton to Penzance, Hal meets her new family. Later, at Trespassen House, she's introduced to the officious housekeeper, Mrs. Warren. With her mouth set in a thin line of pinched disapproval, Mrs. Warren accuses Hal of being happy enough to come down "picking like magpies over the spoils now." There are human flaws aplenty as Hal tries to make the image fit with what everyone wants to hear. But what would Hal's beloved tarot cards say about Trespassen House and the woman who was not her grandmother?

While sons Harding, Abel, and Ezra remain skeptical, Mitzi, Harding's wife, tries to make Hal feel welcome. Hal's mind twists all the possibilities in order to find a way to make the tenuous connection work. There's no way Hal can escape from the fury in Harding's eye as he speaks of lawsuits and contested wills and private detectives. The words whirl in Hal's head, mingling with the yammering voices of the three brothers. The reality feels like a terrifying millstone weighing her down, and she struggles to free herself from what she has done. There could be no quick claims here--no slipping back to Brighton to strategically lose touch with her supposed relatives.

From the mystery behind the names--Maggie, Maude, and Margarida--to Trespassen's overgrown grounds, to Edward's exasperation at Mitzi's whispered remarks as she holds Hal close, Hal attempts to lay bare the dark Westaway family secrets. Trespassen House once had a picture-postcard quality, but it has vanished, swallowed up in decay and rot. There's also something stranger, something darker: the feeling of a place that is hiding secrets, where people were terribly unhappy and no one came to comfort them. Remembering Harding and Ezra's fight, Hal hedges, unwilling to get caught up in the complicated web of resentments and loyalties she senses between the brothers.

As a snow storm descends over Cornwall, shrouding everything in a shifting diaphanous gloom, Hal walks the hallways of Trespassen, entering into a series of strange encounters with her uncles that will hopefully give her the courage to discover the secrets behind her mother's past. Hal could just refuse the bequest and melt away, back to Brighton, disappearing out of their lives. She could also have done more to paint herself as an innocent bystander, a trusting young woman too shy to question the discrepancies in what she has been told. Like its cold, windswept Cornwall setting, Ware's tale is strafed with dark intent: Ezra and Holding's deceptions, the orphaned Hal, the secretive Mrs. Warren, the gloomy images of Trespassen with its tiding of magpies, and the ghost of Mrs. Westaway, who seems to be laughing at Hal and her uncles from beyond the grave.

The plot is jammed with intrigue, a trademark of books in this genre. Ware also makes the most of her gothic estate, a place pummeled by rain and surrounded by marshes. Hal's skin prickles in a sudden burst of fear. She's neither safe at her home in Brighton nor in this cold, sinister house. As the sense of foreboding gathers, Hal knows she's in deep trouble. Steering the weight of the dark secrets the past, Ware writes another terrific thriller, in which the strong winds of fate become a turning point for Hal and for her family.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2018

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