Stop and Listen to What the Woman in Cabin 10 Has to Say
The Woman in Cabin 10 explores how gaslighting gets in the way of the truth
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We mostly don’t believe women, especially angry women. This has ever been the case, but 2016 has been a cavalcade of dismissed female voices. Unfortunately, events like the Stanford rape case bring to light how this disbelief affects issues of consent, and how our legal system (juries both formal and self-appointed on social media) handles victim statements even after women say they are attacked. A 2015 study from Arizona State University that focused on jury reactions showed how angry men gain influence while angry women lose it; nothing underscores this dichotomy better than the 2016 presidential election. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a think piece about how Hillary Clinton has to do everything the men do, only backwards, in high heels, and without sounding angry. Not only do we — and I mean we, men and women — continue to dismiss the anger and truth of women with certitude as old as Eden, we are obsessed by the need to consider this bias from all sides.
It’s interesting, always, which of our obsessions trickles into fiction, even into thrillers. This is not to say that thrillers can’t capture something serious about the zeitgeist, but works like The Girl on the Train and, to some extent, Gone Girl have embodied our obsession with the truth and belief of first-person accounts. Ruth Ware’s sophomore thriller, The Woman in Cabin 10, fits squarely into this genre, and explores how gaslighting gets in the way of the truth.
Some context: Ware’s heroine, Lo, is a journalist at a travel magazine. The Woman in Cabin 10 begins with Lo being attacked in her home. When, following the attack, she gets the opportunity to replace her boss on assignment on an exclusive luxury cruise, she jumps at the chance to go. But when Lo witnesses a murder on board, yet no body is found, she is stuck trying not only to solve the crime, but to convince everyone that a crime even occurred. The Woman in Cabin 10 is a psychological thriller that’s well paced, and satisfying as a good mystery should be.
Initial details of the cruise are mostly Lo’s awed observations about how the one-percent travels. But since there are journalists aboard, she runs into several people she’s known for a long time, including reporter and former boyfriend Ben Howard. Since Lo has a fiancé at home, Ben complicates things nicely. Lo gets to work on enjoying the assignment, but is soon awoken in the middle of the night:
It was the noise on the veranda door in the next cabin sliding gently open.
I held my breath, straining to hear.
And then there was a splash.
Not a small splash.
No, this was a big splash.
The kind of splash made by a body hitting the water.
The next day, there’s no sign of the woman from the cabin next door, alive or dead. As Lo begins to report what she heard, the small number of guests all look suspect. Setting the crime on such a small ship makes for claustrophobic conditions for the increasingly panicked Lo. Fans of the mystery genre will find Ware understands the power of a good question. Like Hawkins’ Rachel in The Girl on The Train, Ware’s Lo has to wonder whether there’s even been a crime. But she isn’t a drunk; Lo is pitted against both the power of her own imagination and her perceived bias as a victim. Ware wants us to consider whether or not it’s possible to be the worst kind of witness, and still be right.
Ware makes her reader feel Lo’s frustration, particularly as she’s being patronized by the personnel on board. “‘Call me ‘Miss Blacklock’” she says to the employee ostensibly investigating the crime, “‘one minute, tell me you respect my concerns and I’m a valued passenger blah blah blah, and then the next minute brush me off like I’m a hysterical female who didn’t see what she saw.’ […] ‘You can’t have it both ways. Either you believe me, or — ’” The element of disbelief means The Woman in Cabin 10 will resonate with anyone who has been marginalized, disbelieved, or challenged because of what they’ve endured, the medication they’re on, or their gender. Ware’s work is modern in terms of plot, but it includes age-old misogyny. Lo is smart, gainfully employed, stable, and middle-class. But that doesn’t stop people from ignoring her account of the truth.
Undoubtedly, The Woman in Cabin 10 will be heralded as a late-summer beach read, the successor to the big-name psychological thrillers of the past few years. But Ware does something more than write the next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, even if she writes in that wheelhouse. Ware puts her own stamp on the genre, and the last quarter of the novel includes alternating voices that change the reader’s perspective on what Lo tells us, herself. Ware is a sophisticated writer who understands how to manipulate truth and timing to provoke the reader’s reactions. The Woman in Cabin 10 is good: it’s creepy, it’s frustrating, and it’s interesting. It brings elements of our current fixations into the realm of the thriller/mystery in the best possible way.