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Book Review: The Cloisters by Katy Hays

Book Review: The Cloisters by Katy Hays

Billed as ‘The Secret History for a new generation’, Katy Hays’ The Cloisters is a sinister slow burn tale of obsession, power, secrets and academic rivalry. Centred around a small circle of enigmatic art researchers, it shares many similarities with Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel. Both are set against an elite dark academia backdrop and feature a mysterious death, an impressionable, eager to fit in protagonist, and a close-knit set of characters whose ambitions overtake their morality. And, like Tartt’s novel, The Cloisters certainly leaves a lasting impression.

The story is told from the perspective of Ann Stilwell, an awkward, mousy intern who arrives in New York City hoping to escape the traumas of her past by spending the summer working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, Ann finds herself assigned to The Cloisters, a gothic museum and garden renowned for its collection of medieval and Renaissance art. It’s here that Ann is drawn into the secretive lives of her colleagues: Patrick – the museum’s charismatic but fixated curator, Leo – the impulsive, nonconformist gardener, and Rachel – a wealthy, beautiful and well-connected fellow intern who is everything Ann aspires to be.

Desperate to be a part of the research Patrick and Rachel are undertaking, Ann makes herself invaluable to The Cloisters, going along with Rachel’s whims and indulging Patrick’s outlandish theories. But when she discovers a mysterious deck of 15th century Italian tarot cards, thought to be lost to history, Ann is thrust into the centre of a dangerous game that will leave someone dead and the rest of them under suspicion for murder. As the once-sequestered world of The Cloisters spirals dangerously out of control, Ann must decide whether the future is predetermined or whether she’s free to defy the cards she’s been dealt.

I should have seen it coming. The way the body would be laid out on the library floor, the way the gardens would be torn apart by the search. The way our jealousy, greed, and ambition were waiting to devour us all, like a snake eating its own tail.”

Whilst the world of tarot and fate is expansive and elaborate, The Cloisters itself is a confined, almost claustrophobic novel. Occasionally venturing outside the museum boundaries to provide insight into Rachel’s murky past and calculating mind-set, it’s within the walls of the museum, over a sweltering hot summer, that the scene for desire, fixation, murder and betrayal is set. There are very few peripheral characters and it’s the power play between Rachel, Patrick, Leo and Ann that makes up the bulk of the novel. Ann is so eager to fit in that she’s willing to overlook the warning signs. As a young woman who has felt invisible and inconsequential for most of her life, Ann yearns to be a part of something; to have her instinct and intelligence valued. The Cloisters gives her that, but at a terrible cost.

The Cloisters leans in to all the things that readers love about the dark academia literary sub-genre. Erudite minds, toxic personal relationships, unhealthy professional rivalries, and an atmospheric setting that influences the characters’ decisions. The first half of the novel is a slow, carefully crafted build-up. Too slow, at times. You’d be forgiven for starting to wonder if the story is ever going to go anywhere. But then the murder takes place and the tension thickens along with the plot. Ann starts to shift, becoming bolder and more assertive. In other words, more like Rachel. But while Ann spends much of the novel trying to emulate Rachel’s style, self-confidence and seemingly casual indifference, it’s what separates the two women that matters most in the end.

You need to stick with The Cloisters to really appreciate the complexity of the story that Katy Hays has written, but it’s an intriguing exploration of single-minded ambition and destructive friendships, particularly between young and striving women. The unravelling of Rachel’s secrets leads Ann to an unnerving revelation, but there’s one final shock that is so shrewdly slipped into the antepenultimate chapter that you’ll need to read it twice just to understand the magnitude of what you’ve just read. It’s a gut-punch of a reveal that will appeal to readers who appreciate a perfectly timed and unexpected twist. It’s been weeks since I finished the book and I’m still impressed by how much it affected me.


The Cloisters was published by Bantam Press on 19 January 2023

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