The Death of Mrs. Westaway, a Thriller Starring Tarot
I don’t make much time to read fiction these days. That’s probably why I hadn’t read anything by psychological thriller author Ruth Ware until now. I happened to catch a review of her new book The Death of Mrs. Westaway on NPR during my last Northeastern Tarot Tour. My husband, John, back in Florida, heard the same review and immediately sent me the book on GooglePlay.
Why did a review of a book by an author I’ve never read cause my dear husband to send me a gift? The Death of Mrs. Westawayis about a tarot reader!
Twenty-one-year-old Harriet Westaway, known as Hal, has taken over her mother’s fortune-telling booth on the pier near their modest flat in Brighton. Hal’s mother was killed in an accident two years prior to the story’s opening.
Hal’s financial woes include trouble paying her meager rent and heating bills, and a violent loan shark whose henchman has threatened to “break her bones and teeth”.
When Hal receives a letter from an attorney requesting her presence at the reading of her grandmother’s will, her ray of hope for financial relief is clouded by the fact that she has never heard of Hester Westaway, her supposed late grandmother. It seems the attorney has found the wrong Harriet Westaway.
Though Hal is a tarot card reader, she is not a mystic. She holds her tarot clients with a sort of pitiful distain. Hal is not a scammer psychic – she doesn’t offer to lift curses, reunite lovers or appease dead relatives, but neither does she believe that a tarot reading is a mystical or psychic process.
Although Hal clearly has a conscience and compassion for her clients, she believes the work she does is fake. Her readings are a show she puts on based on the images of the cards, her observation of her clients and her assumptions about them, and sometimes, her online research of her clients’ social media accounts.
Hal’s mother had taught her not only the symbolism and meanings of the cards, she had also admonished her against superstition, and against believing her own readings. Hal’s style of tarot reading, as well as her mother’s, relies on cold reading. That is, making guesses about people based on their body language and expression.
Hal admits to having always had a knack for reading people, but ascribes this to her powers of observation, rather than anything mystical or intuitive. It is this talent for cold reading that empowers Hal to make the trip to the funeral, to stay in the old gothic mansion with the family she has never met and attempt to claim a portion of Mrs. Westaway’s estate.
What ensues from there is a wild tale of family dysfunction, loyalties and secrets, in which Hal discovers the unlikely truth of her own existence.
I love a good mystery. The Death of Mrs. Westaway is the best kind of mystery because so many details need to be uncovered; we need to guess the crimes as well as the perpetrators. I was proud that I had deduced two major plot points before they were revealed, only to be gobsmacked by the final plot twist that, psychic though I may be, I never saw coming.
We tarotists love to find books and movies that reflect our craft intelligently and accurately. Ruth Ware skillfully weaves the tarot images through the story, allowing tarot to be both a story-teller and a prominent character within the story.
So well done was the presentation of tarot that I was surprised to read that the author had no prior knowledge of tarot other than the research she did to write this book.
While Ms. Ware got the artful presentation of tarot brilliantly, I was less happy with her presentation of tarot readers. In the interview that follows the book on GooglePlay, Ms. Ware said that to prepare to write the book she read books about tarot. She had fun figuring out which cards would be featured in Hal’s readings (despite her own skepticism, Hal reads for herself throughout the story). Ware did a brilliant job of this, choosing cards very appropriate to the situations they represented, in a way that finally negates Hal’s cynicism of the cards as the story unfolds.
What Ms. Ware seems to have failed to research is tarot readers themselves. In the interview she spends some time talking about the fake psychics and mediums she researched, and the tricks they use to do “cold readings” and “hot readings”. Both techniques are employed by the main character, as taught to her by her late mother.
I wish Ruth Ware had researched a little further. Had she looked, she would have found in her own backyard the Tarot Association of the British Isles (TABI) and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Had she bothered, she would have found there professional, ethical, talented tarotists who rely on talent rather than tricks.
It’s true that Hal’s specific relationship with tarot, and with professional reading, is a perfect plot point. Ware did not need to research tarot further to create the brilliant story she did.
Only one thing nags at me.
Never in my twenty-five years of professional tarot have I met a reader like Hal. I’ve organized and run psychic fairs and tarot events. I’ve presented at international tarot conventions. I’ve mentored countless professional readers.
I am certainly aware of scammer psychics who sit in shops in the glow of their tacky neon lights, waiting to convince desperate people of their need to relieve themselves of money, jewelry and cars to avert some dark destiny. I know that the digital age has given those dishonest readers more fodder to convince their clients of their psychic ability.
The tarot readers I know, train and work with are horrified by the unscrupulous activities of those neon psychics.
When folks assume that my skills come from cold reading or internet research I laugh at them, and here’s why.
The majority of the readings I perform are on the phone, where I can’t possibly see facial expression, eye motion or body language. The accuracy and efficacy of my phone readings equal my in-person readings. Clearly, I am no cold reader. Neither is any reader I know.
The idea that I would waste precious time and risk clouding my head with internet research on a client is completely ludicrous. I know that the cards will reveal whatever I need to know to give my client the information and insight they need. I don’t need to trick my clients to impress them; I can do that with my skill.
As Ware’s novel unfolds, we discover that both Hal and her mother end up working the fortune telling booth out of necessity, rather than out of a real love of the work or a belief in tarot. And that’s where my disbelief just can’t be suspended.
Who in their right mind would choose tarot reading as a money-maker if they didn’t have a passion for it, a love for it, and a belief in it?
I am sure Hal, and her mother before her, could have made much better money waiting tables, bartending, walking dogs, or at any number of quick-cash jobs. When aspiring tarot professionals come to me looking for mentorship I make sure they understand completely that tarot reading is never a quick money-maker, and never an easy gig.
I can begrudgingly forgive Ruth Ware for portraying a less-than-honest tarot reader, although it pains me. The stereotypes that I fight against every day are the bane of my existence. That tarot seems to redeem itself in the story certainly quells some of my ire at her perpetration of those stereotypes.
What is hard for me to swallow is the idea that Hal and her mother would have ever turned to tarot reading in the first place, given their feelings about it. It does seem, though, that when the mysteries in the story are finally unraveled, the information Hal receives might give her a new perspective on tarot. I imagine she might go forward to a happier life and a more successful tarot career because of what she has learned.
Whether or not you are a tarot aficionado, you will find The Death of Mrs. Westawaya superbly written thriller. If you, like me, love tarot, you might have to bite back your anger at some of the ways pro tarot reading is portrayed. It will be worth it to enjoy this story and see the way the cards speak truth throughout it.