Reviewed by Eleanor Franzén
Speculative fiction often works best when it takes one element of our everyday lives and tweaks it, showing us how much we rely on a certain cultural script or set of behaviours in order to function as we do. Sometimes this tweak takes the form of a natural phenomenon. In The Well, Catherine Chanter’s debut novel, it is a drought — a very long one. England has been suffering from a lack of rain for about a year (yes, a highly unlikely scenario, but swallow it, for your own sake. The book requires you to, and the book is good.) We are left to make up our minds about why. A reader can guess at vague climate change-related rationale, but Chanter wisely avoids the details of the situation; instead, she immerses us on the first page in her strange new world, and never hesitates for a moment as she draws us in.
As the book opens, Ruth Ardingly and her husband Mark buy a country property near Wales, called The Well. They are fleeing not only the horrors of a drought-stricken London, but also some deeply unsavoury rumours leveled against Mark at his workplace. Buying The Well is mostly for Mark’s happiness; the two of them married young and he has always wanted to farm, but for the past twenty years has been stuck in the corporate grind. Now, with his severance package, they can make a go of a farm, and perhaps (an unspoken but equally pressing priority) save their foundering marriage.
Of course, it is not that straightforward. The Ardinglys gradually begin to realize that their land is mysteriously exempt from whatever weather patterns are affecting the rest of the country. On a hike up a local hill, they pause at the top to identify their own fields and manage to do so
not by the one chimney which showed above the rhythm of the contours, nor by the pinprick beauty of the solitary oak, but because it shone–our Well gleamed green like a tiny emerald, pinned to the breast of a tired old lady towards the end of the dance.
Their good fortune does not make them any friends in the countryside, and the Ardinglys are slightly too urban to recognize, at first, how easily they can alienate neighbours. Buying some equipment from a dairy farmer who is selling up because he can no longer afford the water bills, they are sympathetic, but, Ruth notes, “[we] saw his demise and our ascendancy as the natural order of things and were buoyed up with enthusiasm, our new toys in the back of the Land Rover.” Such is a dangerous attitude for interlopers to have in a rural community during hard times, and the Ardinglys quickly find themselves objects of hatred and resentment in the village. When news gets out about the Well’s greenness, Ruth and Mark face not only the return of their prodigal daughter Angie, a heroin addict with a four-year-old son, Lucien, but also the incursion of a group of women for whom the Well is the birthplace of a new religion, and Ruth — potentially — a new female Messiah.
The Well doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to cult religion: the leader of the women who settle on the Ardinglys’ land, Sister Amelia, is terrifyingly manipulative and emotionally abusive. Her charisma allows her to chip away at Ruth and Mark’s relationship, and while Chanter’s treatment of her erotic appeal is never graphic or explicit, it’s all the more troublingly powerful for being muted. Unfortunately, we never actually see a great deal of Sister Amelia: the whole novel is told retrospectively, through Ruth’s memories, and any direct speech from Amelia is oddly vague. Perhaps we can attribute this to the attempt to make of Ruth a flawed, defensive protagonist, but given the fictional potential of a demagogue, it’s surprising that Chanter doesn’t take the chance. On the other hand, perhaps her reasoning was that power like Amelia’s is more disturbing when left to the imagination — that’s certainly inarguable.
Chanter is a little easier on traditional religion, though she doesn’t leave it uncriticized either. Ruth’s confessor, Father Hugh, is a humane man whose practical ineffectiveness doesn’t matter as much as the work he does in lifting her spirits. There is never even an attempt to create a coherent explanation for why The Well receives rain while nowhere else in England does, and that choice, again, is the right one; Chanter’s point seems to be that great grace can appear and disappear without the comforting narrative of a god or dogmatic principles, and she makes that point adeptly. The question that the book explores is not Why does the rain come?, but What do we do when the rain comes for us, but not for others? It is, in that sense, a parable of finite resources, but one with a human edge.
The human edge comes from the other genre into which this book could be slotted: the murder mystery. It is no plot spoiler to say that Ruth’s grandson, Lucien, is murdered at The Well (we find this out within the first twenty pages). Her retrospective telling of the book is, at least in part, an attempt to work out who murdered him in order to clear her own name. There’s not a great deal of room for subtlety here–I vacillated once or twice on my opinion of the guilty party, but there was only one option that seemed reasonable–but Chanter delineates perfectly, and painfully, the nauseating grief of an adult for a child whom they loved, and whom they failed to protect. In the end, The Well is about parenthood, and the passing on of responsibility from one generation to another: an apt thematic focus for a novel whose premise is an ecological emergency, and a timely reminder, to the contemporary reader, that we all bear some measure of responsibility for one another.
Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks.
Catherine Chanter, The Well. (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015) 978-1782113607, 378 pp., hardback.