Harriet Westaway, called Hal, is broke, totally broke. When she receives a letter stating that her grandmother has died and she is to inherit a substantial sum, this seems to be the solution to all her problems. Yet: the dead woman simply cannot be her grandmother. They share the same last name, but all the dates on the birth certificates show that there must have been a mistake. Nevertheless, she travels to Cornwall to the funeral where she meets “her family”: Harding, Abel and Ezra – presumably her mother Maud’s brothers. Before Maud died three years ago, she never spoke of neither her family nor Hal’s father, she and her mother were all family she had and now, she got three uncles and their families. Hal feels uncomfortable betraying them, even though they apparently do much better in life than she herself and they easily could do without a couple of pounds. But more than the nagging bad conscience she senses that the old mansion, Trepassen, she is staying at has some secrets to hide – especially the deceased Mrs Westaway’s servant Mrs Warren seems to know something she does not want to share – and she recognises Hal. How could that be?
I have read several of Ruth Ware’s novels and I like that she always finds a completely new story and that you are not reminded of any former books – a problem of so many authors who seem to write the same novel over and over again. Even though Ware has become famous for her psychological thrillers, I wouldn’t classify “The Death of Mrs Westaway” as one, for me it is rather a suspenseful family drama without the big thrill but a lot of secrets and mysteries.
What I liked especially was the setting of the old house in which all the secrets have lain buried for two decades. The floor boards creak when you walk on them, there is an old study with masses of books and you can hear the wind howl. Plus, the secretive family who is not very open and welcoming to the stranger and who surely does not want any old stories to be uncovered.
For her protagonist, Ruth Ware has chosen a very unique character. A young orphaned woman is not that rare in those kinds of novels, however, Hal is a tarot reader and has a special capacity of reading people – in order to tell them what they want to hear. She herself does not believe in the cards as fortune-tellers, they are much more providing guidance and concentration at the facts at hand.
The story itself is captivating immediately since you anxiously wait until Hal’s deliberate deception is revealed and she is thrown-out. Then you realise that things might be a bit more complicated and the further you get, the more pieces of the puzzle appear leading to a new picture.
There are many small aspects which make the novel absolutely outstanding, first of all the title which seems so simple since you know right from the start that a certain Mrs Westaway has died. Yet, at the end, there is much more to this than you might have guessed at first. Second, Harriet has a tattoo of a magpie, a reference to her mother and closely linked to Trepassen – which is a corruption of the Cornish word for magpie farm. She calls herself “Hal” which is also the name of the goddess of death in Norse mythology and whom the magpies served.
All in all, a captivating read in which it is worth looking at the details.