The Woman in Cabin 10 is a suspenseful thriller in the amateur accidentally stumbles on a murder or conspiracy tradition. Laura “Call me Lo” Blacklock is a travel writer for a magazine who landed a career-booting opportunity to enjoy the inaugural voyage of the Aurora, an exclusive luxury cruise ship. It is so exclusive, it carries only twenty passengers. She will be socializing with investors, travel cognoscenti, and journalists, all contacts she should be nurturing to advance her career.
Unfortunately, she does not arrive in the best condition what with getting her face slammed by a burglar two nights before. Anxiety about repeat offenders (a common occurrence) drives her to her boyfriend’s apartment for some sleep even though he is off working in Moscow. His unexpected arrival in the middle of the night spooks her, she beans him with a lamp and she spends another sleepless night with him at the ER. Stress, anxiety, and exhaustion boil over into a fight that leaves them both wondering if the relationship is over, but there’s no time to reconcile before she leaves.
Before she can rest, though, she has to get through an introductory dinner and cocktail party. Although she’s replaced her bank card and ID, she forgot to bring mascara so she knocks on the room next door, borrowing a mascara from The Woman in Cabin 10. Lo heads off to the party, knocks back a few too many drinks trying to settle her nerves, especially after running into an old boyfriend. To add to her stress, he makes a pass that triggers all the pent up anxiety from the burglary, so she falls apart in front of him. She finally gets him to leave, takes another drink to settle her nerves and at long, long last falls asleep.
In the middle of the night she is woken by a noise, a scream, and a splash. She rushes to the veranda and sees blood smeared on the glass door of cabin 10. She reports that she thinks she saw a murder to a ship’s officer. When they go to check, cabin 10 is empty and spotless. There is no sign that anyone was ever in the room, the man who was expected to sail missed the voyage after his passport was stolen during a break-in. He notes her empty mini-bar bottles and wants to chalk it up to an overactive imagination, especially after he learns from the ex that she was recently burgled and had a breakdown in the past, taking pills for anxiety.
This culminates in one of those affirming scenes that will exhilarate anyone whose testimony and memory have been called into doubt because they suffer from depression or anxiety or any other disorder they have learned to live with and manage. The officer assumes she imagined everything. The entire scene was epic, to capture just a bit, here is just a portion. “I told you, you do not get to do this. You don’t get to call me obsequious names and then dismiss what I’ve told you. Yes, I haven’t been sleeping. Yes, I’d been drinking. Yes, someone broke into my flat. It has nothing to do with what I saw.”
Obviously someone believes her, because she gets a warning written in the fog on the glass in the spa, a warning that dissipates before she can even call for a witness. But she keeps digging, determined to find justice for the woman in cabin 10. Meanwhile, interstitial e-mails, news articles and social media heighten our anxiety with reports that to her friends and family, she is missing, presumed dead.
I was frustrated with how very poor Lo’s self-care was. Skipping meds and meals while drinking to soothe her nerves, help her relax, give her confidence, help her sleep, and ease her hangover did not instill confidence or respect. She might have moxie, but she does not take care of herself, making herself more vulnerable.
Ruth Ware succeeds in building the suspense and is very effective at illustrating how easy it is to gaslight Lo. She even comes to doubt herself momentarily, just because she is so tired. It’s possible that readers could come to doubt her, except the occasional back in England breaks make it clear something must be up because she has disappeared. The plot is sufficiently complex and satisfying in that most of the solution is figured out by Lo and not told to her in a long monologue by a gloating villain.
I go back and forth on whether I think the ending makes sense or not. Without explaining too much, it depends on whether you think someone can make a change of heart or not. I will say, though, that the final revelation, a Winnie the Pooh reference, does make that change of heart more credible.
What I liked best about The Woman in Cabin 10 is that it was for the anti-Gaslight. She refused to accept the narrative. She fought it and believed in herself. I also was intrigued by how much menace Ware was able to convey with the villain so absent. There is a presence, but unseen, unacknowledged and it was far more suspenseful that knowledge would have been.