The Well

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The Well, a debut novel by Catherine Chanter, is set in a near-future United Kingdom where it has all but ceased to rain. Only a few places resist the drought, one of which is the titular farm which possesses not only an underground spring, but continues to see rainfall. The farm was acquired before the drought by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, who retire to the country after life in London ends ignominiously as Mark is charged (and cleared) of possession of child pornography. The Well is more Mark’s dream than Ruth’s, and she finds it particularly difficult to be exempt from the suffering the drought entails, until the arrival of the Sisters of the Rose, a religion which has sprung up since the water shortage began. In the midst of all this, her grandson, Lucien, is killed, and the novel is also a whodunit as Ruth tries to discover who is responsible, regarding herself as a possible suspect.

Much of this is revealed early in the novel as events are largely recounted retrospectively by Ruth. The novel begins with her return to the Well under house arrest after a spell in prison for unspecified reasons. From that point the story unfolds in two time-frames: her search for the truth in the present, and her memories of what happened at the Well from the moment she and Mark decided to buy it, a scene laden with irony from:

“’You think it’s too good to be true?’ suggested Mark.

To Lucien’s comment:

“I think it’s the best place in the world.”

Things turn sour when the drought begins and the Well is unaffected. Mark is determined to keep the farm but Ruth is less resolute:

“Do you know what? I’ve had just about enough of being on the receiving end of the general public’s accusations. We did that in London and it was no fun. Now, I just want to be like everyone else. I’d actually prefer to be party of their fucking drought.”

Only when the Sisters of the Rose arrive and declare the Well a sacred place, convinced Ruth has spiritual power, does she feel reconnected to it, though at the expense of her relationships with Mark and Lucien. Sister Amelia, the leader of the Sisters, is a particularly manipulative character from her first appearance:

“She said that she knew how hard it had been for me, but that she was there for me now, her and all the sisters, that I wouldn’t be alone any longer.”

The implications of that aloneness is, of course, that Mark and Lucien don’t count (particularly because of their maleness – the Sisters are an exclusively female religion), and soon Mark has left and Lucien is dead.

It is worth pointing out a few things that The Well is not. It is not dystopian fiction in the vein of, for example, J.G. Ballard’s The Drought, examining the effect of catastrophic climate change on society and individuals. Our focus is entirely with the Well; we occasionally here of Mark’s excursions to the outside world, but Ruth remains at the farm. The effect of the drought is only vaguely sketched, and its seriousness difficult to gauge. The key creation of the drought is the Sisters of the Rose, a more homely version of other post-apocalyptic religions as seen in Margaret Atwood’s fiction, or Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse. Even that, though, despite Ruth’s participation, we witness largely from the outside, as Ruth always remains at one step removed, living at the farmhouse.

In many ways the novel’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Ruth’s narration works well at unfolding the mystery of Lucien’s death, particularly as she cannot rule herself out as a suspect. However, it does leave us limited to her point of view, with all the other characters subsumed within her story. (It’s telling, for example, that she refers to the soldiers guarding her only by the nicknames she has for them like Boy). At times it felt that Mark was reduced to the role of shouty husband as these were the only points he punched through into Ruth‘s consciousness (for example, destroying the greenhouse after Ruth breaking the one promise she’d made him to help on the farm). The experience of reading the novel is not unlike that of a well – long and narrow with little light getting in from outside.

Overall I felt this was a promising first novel – it’s always exciting to see a writer with the confidence to mix genres – but one that didn’t quite succeed in everything it attempted.

Thanks to Canongate for a review copy of The Well.

 

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6 Responses to “The Well”

  1. hastanton Says:

    Sounds interesting …..although there does seem to be rather a lot of dystopian fiction about at present …….

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it does rather seem to be the in genre. Not sure how important it is to this novel as we don’t see much of what’s happening outside the farm.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s funny you should mention The Pesthouse as it came to mind as I was reading your review. I’m reminded of another novel too, but its name escapes me…it’ll come back to me at some point. An interesting review, but I’m happy to pass on this one. (My TBR is breathing a small sigh of relief!) It’ll be interesting to see what she writes next – plenty of potential by the sound of things.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I wonder how this compares to Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, a novel I really liked. I’m glad you wrote about this. I hadn’t heard of the author yet but I’m intrigued.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve only just read my first Sarah Hall – The Beautiful Indifference – so I can’t really help you there. Having just read as summary I can see why you might think they are similar – and I now want to read it! (Though to be fair, I had already decided to read more of her books).

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