The Cloisters by Katy Hays review – the power of tarot | Fiction

Already a hit in the US, where it has been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Katy Hays’s debut novel is about tarot, obsession, academic jealousy and Renaissance magic. This subject matter will intrigue many and discourage others. I was initially in the latter category, but it turns out that Hays is a writer who can skilfully navigate the narrow territory between suspense and melodrama.

The main character is Ann Stilwell, a young woman from Washington state who has just graduated from her local college. Ann is fascinated by the “overlooked edges of the Renaissance … their gilt and pageantry … their performance of power”. She loves small objects that “might make me bigger by association”.

Ann’s father has recently been killed in a hit-and-run incident, and she is desperate to get away from home. She has a summer internship lined up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but when she arrives in the big city the MoMa job evaporates and she is recruited instead to work at the Met Cloisters in upper Manhattan, a “jewel box” of a museum consisting of medieval abbeys and priories purchased in France and rebuilt in New York. Ann is immediately seduced by these ancient buildings “polished to a new world sheen”. She loves the fact that her new colleagues are all “beautiful and sharp and inaccessible”, even if she herself feels like “a hick from an unknown school”.

Her colleague Rachel is an orphaned heiress with Ivy League qualifications. Ann admires Rachel but feels closer to Leo, the mysterious young gardener who grows herbs (or perhaps drugs and poisonous plants) in the museum’s luscious gardens. Both Ann and Rachel report to the charismatic Patrick Roland, who is working with art dealers to find a particular pack of 15th-century tarot cards.

When Patrick begins to suspect that Ann has found the cards he has long been seeking, and is keeping them concealed, his behaviour become threatening, and Ann realises that she is trapped in a world fuelled by jealousy, greed and ambition. The atmosphere of the museum turns to suffocation, possession, control; the summer heat of New York “sticky and thick and slow”.

Patrick has always believed that this pack of cards might hold the secret to understanding the workings of tarot. Ann is sure they are a parlour trick, but as the tension at the museum increases, she struggles to separate reality from dream, and it becomes easy for her to believe that everything is decided on the dice or a deal of the cards.

The book is all told in the first person from Ann’s point of view. Initially, we sympathise with all her insecurities. Yet as the novel progresses we understand that she is far from reliable. Why did she leave her home town? Are discussions of fate and destiny simply excuses for immoral choices? Rachel seems to be the controlling force. “She turned us all like we existed on her axis.” But who is the manipulator and who is manipulated?

Ann has become “no longer an academic, a researcher, but a detective one clue away from greatness”. How far will she go to become “bigger”? All these narrative threads are laid out with care, but I worried that they would not be woven into a satisfying conclusion. This is exactly the kind of novel that often has an extreme ending, in which supernatural and melodramatic elements become a substitute for coherent plotting.

Not so here. Late in the book Hays steers away from plot and focuses on character. Increasingly we see that what lies at the heart of this novel is not magic or fate, but two young women caught up in a vicious world of rampant ambition. Finally, there is a satisfying brutality to this book. We have some sympathy when Ann offers her excuses. She has only been learning “the lessons the city teaches me”.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays is published by Bantam (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.