Throughout The Woman in Cabin 10, Ware constantly plays with the differences between perception and reality. For example, the extravagance of the yacht Aurora conceals the dark secrets of various people aboard; the content of emails and internet posts after each section of the novel tricks the reader into guessing that Lo Blacklock has suffered a much worse fate than she ultimately does. The most obvious examples, though, are the disguise used by the woman in Cabin 10 and Lord Bullmer’s deceptive self-presentation. Ware uses these deceptions to show that people and situations are not always what they seem, and that trusting in perceptions and appearances can be incredibly dangerous.
“The girl in Cabin 10”—later revealed as Carrie—and Anne Bullmer are the book’s primary examples of how one’s perception of reality can be easily manipulated, to dangerous effect. When Lo meets the neighbor she only knows as “the girl in Cabin 10” on the yacht, she sees a pretty young woman wearing a ratty Pink Floyd t-shirt and lots of makeup. The glimpse is fleeting, but it gives Lo a vivid impression of a lively personality.
In contrast, when Lo first sees Anne Bullmer, yacht owner Lord Richard Bullmer’s rich, dying wife, she sees a sickly, pale woman in a headscarf, with a “curious, skull-like appearance.” Afraid of rudely staring, Lo doesn’t study Anne closely. The next day, she has additional brief encounters with “Anne.” When she knocks on the Bullmers’ cabin door and finds Anne tearful, Lo’s face burns with “a kind of shame” at Anne’s vulnerability. Later, she sees Anne leaning against a wall “as if steeling herself for something”; Anne remarks, “Sometimes it all just seems too much … such a performance,” before excusing herself to bed. Lo’s discomfort during these momentary encounters, due to not wanting to make a cancer survivor feel self-conscious, prevents her from forming a similarly vivid impression of Anne Bullmer.
Later, Lo makes the shocking discovery that the “girl in Cabin 10” is Anne—or at least, who she thinks is Anne. When the girl washes her face, she wipes off her penciled eyebrows, revealing “a smooth, skull-like forehead that was instantly, unbearably recognizable.” Lo abruptly realizes that she “had been so mesmerized by the trappings of [Anne’s] illness that I’d never really looked at the woman beneath. I had tried not to look in fact.” The ease with which Lo’s perceptions were manipulated shows that appearances can’t always be trusted.
Soon, it clicks that “Anne” is actually a different woman, Carrie, who’s been impersonating the real Anne Bullmer—now dead—since the second day of the cruise. Lo thinks back on meeting Carrie and suddenly remembers seeing waxing strips and other products she’d been using to transform herself into “Anne.” Thus, the revelation illuminates Lo’s old memories, and she realizes that she hasn’t been seeing exactly what and whom she thought she was seeing.
Though the Anne/Carrie deception is elaborate, Lord Bullmer’s manipulation of others’ perceptions of him is even more calculated and sinister, demonstrating how dangerous it truly is to mistake appearances for reality. When Lo first speaks with Lord Bullmer, she notices an odd wink he habitually gives—“not avuncular … but more as if he were trying to level what he knew to be an intimidatingly uneven playing field … I’m just an ordinary approachable guy.” Though Lo interprets it as fairly harmless at first, she nonetheless senses a deceptive element in Bullmer from the beginning.
Later, when Lo tells Bullmer her suspicions about the alleged murder on the Aurora, she is quickly able to “see why Richard Bullmer had got to where he had in life.” As Lo narrates what she believes she’s seen and heard, “Bullmer grilled me on every single word … the slightly mockney overlay to his speech vanished … he was utterly focused.” Lo is puzzled by Bullmer’s stoic reactions—“I couldn’t tell what he was feeling. Was he furious, or panicked, and simply hiding it well?” At first, she feels “confident and appeased” to have finally been heard, but she realizes “he hadn’t promised anything … there had been a lot of if this is true … and if what you say … nothing very concrete.” Bullmer’s charming, down-to-earth persona slips, and Lo perceives that she’s being manipulated, though she can’t tell exactly how.
Although Lo never encounters Bullmer face to face again, she’s relentlessly pursued by symbols of his crushing power—everything from the yacht reversing course in pursuit of Lo after she escapes, to the policeman she can’t fully trust because of Bullmer’s wide-ranging influence. Contrary to the image he projects, he isn’t a down-to-earth billionaire, but a sociopathic schemer. His manipulation of his personality to control others—as he’s tried to do with Anne, Carrie, and Lo—is far deadlier and more difficult to evade than a mere physical disguise, illustrating the towering danger of trusting in appearances.
The twists throughout The Woman in Cabin 10 unsettle the reader by showing just how easy it is to be mistaken about one’s initial perceptions. Lo’s stubborn refusal to “stop digging”—to keep searching for Carrie despite everyone else’s denial of her existence, and not taking any Aurora passengers’ personas at face value—suggests the importance of continually asking questions in pursuit of the truth, especially when people leverage their power to try to control those more vulnerable.
Perception vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Perception vs. Reality Quotes in The Woman in Cabin 10
It seemed impossible that everything mentioned in the brochure—library, sunroom, spa, sauna, cocktail lounge, and all the other things apparently indispensable to the Aurora’s pampered passengers—could fit into this miniature vessel. Its size, along with the perfection of its paintwork, gave it a curiously toylike quality, and as I stepped onto the narrow steel gangway I had a sudden disorienting image of the Aurora as a ship imprisoned in a bottle—tiny, perfect, isolated, and unreal—and of myself, shrinking down to match it with every step I took towards the boat. It was a strange feeling, as if I were looking down the wrong end of a telescope, and it gave me a dizzying sensation almost like vertigo.
I knocked again, three sharp knocks, and then, as an afterthought, a final loud whack in case they were hard of hearing.
The door flew open, as if the occupant had been standing on the other side.
“What?” she demanded, almost before the door had opened. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m your neighbor,” I said. She was young and pretty with long dark hair, and she was wearing a ratty Pink Floyd T-shirt with holes, which somehow made me like her quite a lot.
I felt an odd reluctance to go into details, not just because talking about it brought back unpleasant flashes of what had happened but also out of a kind of pride. I wanted to sit at this table as a professional, the smooth, capable journalist able to take on all comers. I didn’t relish the portrait of myself as a frightened victim, cowering in my own bedroom […] I should have just stayed in my room, head beneath the duvet, was the truth. Stupid Lo, sticking your neck out.
We were passing the crew’s cabins again, and as we passed the few open doors I glanced in, shocked afresh at the dinginess of the cramped quarters. I couldn’t imagine spending week after week, month after month, in the windowless confines […] [I]t was [not] the space itself that shocked but the contrast with the light, airy rooms above […] But it was the graphic illustration of the gap between the haves and have-nots that was upsetting, a modern upstairs-downstairs in action.
…[T]he kind of publicity that an unexplained death would generate could sink the whole enterprise. Something like this could scupper the Aurora before she was even launched, and if that happened, everyone on board could lose their jobs, from the captain down to Iwona, the cleaner.
I knew that.
But I had heard something. Something that had made me start from my sleep with my heart pounding two hundred beats per minute, and my palms wet with sweat, and the conviction that somewhere very close by, another woman was in grave trouble. I knew what it was like to be that girl—to realize, in an instant, how incredibly fragile your hold on life could be, how paper-thin the walls of security really were.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, psychotherapy—none of it really worked in the way that the pills did. Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup—not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.
If someone had been walking along the deck outside and had glanced in the window, they would never have known that I had just told him something that could deal a sucker punch to his business, and revealed the presence of a possible psychopath on board a small ship. As my story unfolded I was expecting echoes of Nilsson’s distress, or the clannish denial of the stewardesses, but although I watched Bullmer’s face carefully, I saw neither of those, no hint of accusation or censure […] With Bullmer, I couldn’t tell what he was feeling. Was he furious, or panicked, and simply hiding it well? Or was he really as cool and calm as he seemed?
I was so busy thinking about Ben that as I rounded the corner near the upper-deck toilet, I almost tripped over Anne Bullmer. She was leaning back against the wall as if steeling herself for something, although whether to return to the party, or make her way back to her cabin, I wasn’t sure. She looked extremely tired, her face gray, the shadows around her eyes darker than ever […]
“I’m fine, I’m just very tired. Sometimes…” She swallowed, and her voice cracked for a moment, something in the cut-glass English accent slipping. “Sometimes it all just seems too much—d’you know what I mean? Such a performance.”
It wasn’t just the blood she wiped away. When she came out, I froze. With that one simple act, I realized who she was.
In wiping away the blood she had wiped both her eyebrows clean off, leaving a smooth, skull-like forehead that was instantly, unbearably recognizable.
The woman in Cabin 10 was Anne Bullmer.
While Richard was back in Lars’s cabin, establishing his alibi with an uninterrupted poker game, the woman in Cabin 10 had bundled the real Anne overboard and hoped that the body would never be found.
And they would have got away with it, if I—frightened and traumatized from the burglary—hadn’t heard the splash and jumped to a conclusion that was so wrong, it was almost completely right.
So who was she? […] I had no idea. But I knew one thing—she was my best hope of getting out of here alive.
“Shut up!” She put her hands over her ears, shaking her head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Neither of us wanted to be in this situation!”
“Really? You think it’s coincidence he fell in love with someone who bears a startling resemblance to Anne? He planned this from the beginning. You’re just a means to an end […] All the money, without the controlling wife—I think he had that carrot waved in front of his nose by Anne’s illness […] And when the doctors gave her the all clear, he didn’t want to let go of it—is that right?”
I thought about it after she left—the stupidity of thanking a woman who was keeping you captive, buying your compliance by withholding food and drugs. Was I developing Stockholm syndrome?
Maybe. Although if I was, she had a considerably more advanced case than I did. Maybe that was closer to the truth—we weren’t captor and captive, but two animals in different compartments of the same cage. Hers was just slightly larger.
With each step, I remembered Carrie’s frantic exhortations to get running and get out—her hysterical assertions about the reach of Richard’s influence.
It didn’t seem so hysterical now.
If only I had believed her—I should never have shown Anne’s ID at the hotel, or trusted Erik with even the few details I’d given him. But I just hadn’t quite believed that anyone, however wealthy, could have the kind of reach Carrie believed. Now I realized I was wrong. […]
What was I going to do? […] My best hope was finding a police station, but how? Where? And did I dare tell them the truth when I got there?
I thought of Carrie’s terror, of the bruises on her body, of her belief that she would never escape Richard. She had been right. Judah said nothing, and I could not see his expression in the dark, but I felt his silent disagreement.
“What,” I demanded, “you don’t believe me? You don’t think people can be sucked into doing something out of fear, or inability to see any other way out?”
“No, it’s not that,” Judah said slowly. “I believe that […] But you can’t tell me that you’d do that to another person, no matter how tough things seemed—lock them up like that, imprison them—no matter how scared you were.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought of Carrie, of how brave she had been, and how fragile. I thought of the masks she wore to hide the terror and loneliness inside.
“I think I lost sight of what I wanted. I don’t want to end up like Tina and Alexander, traveling from country to country and only seeing five-star hotels and Michelin restaurants. Yes, Rowan’s been to half the luxury resorts in the Caribbean, but in return she spends her life reporting the stories that people like Bullmer want her to tell, and I don’t want that, not anymore. I want to write about the things people don’t want you to know. And if I’m going to start pulling my way up from the bottom again, well, I can freelance from anywhere.”