A stunningly suspenseful debut that defies genres and tackles taboos
After reading so much YA fiction recently, it was a welcome respite to dive into The Well by Catherine Chanter (Canongate Books, 2015). Halfway through Chanter’s debut I was asked what kind of book it was and I simply couldn’t answer. Upon completing it, I still can’t tell you exactly what genre it belongs to – and that is what makes The Well so compelling. It’s unlike anything I have ever read, grounding the fantastical in the contemporary world to defy classification and suspend disbelief.
So, what is The Well about? The story is told retrospectively by our protagonist Ruth Ardingly, who flits from the bustling streets of London to a new home in the countryside with her husband, Mark. Crippled by an inexplicable drought, the nation is in crisis – yet, Ruth’s new retreat, The Well, is an oasis of fertility and rainfall. With no logical explanation for the phenomenon, the community blames witchcraft, which is only amplified when a feminist cult calling themselves the “Sisters of the Rose of Jericho” set up residency on the outskirts of the farm.
We join Ruth as she returns to The Well under house arrest. We’re not told why, but we soon learn that her safe haven has turned into a haunted house, plagued by the unresolved murder of her grandson, Lucas. As Ruth recalls the events that led to the tragedy, trying to decipher who was responsible – perhaps even herself – we realise she is an unreliable narrator, who can only share as much as she remembers. This makes for a complex story, keeping us in suspense while she pieces together the tale. It also means we don’t learn everything about the characters, earning only a biased view from our narrator.
In her first novel, Chanter isn’t afraid to broach taboo subjects, from paedophilia to dogma, bureaucracy to child homicide. But, nothing is sensationalised through Ruth’s perspective. There is doubt behind every thought she has, so the only absolute is the love she has for Lucas. She questions whether her husband is truly guilty of the heinous allegations against him, which forced them to relocate from the city. She wonders whether the preaching of the Sisters is to be believed, as she is elevated to deity status. She is powerless to the will of the government, from the moment she moves to The Well as a citizen to her return as a convict. She doubts her own sanity, as she questions whether she could actually be the one responsible for the death of her own grandson. The narrative is gritty and often bleak, but utterly gripping throughout, as Ruth discovers the truth about what happened to Lucas.
Through Ruth’s eyes, Chanter moulds a credible cast of characters, none more so than the devious leader of the Rose of Jericho, Sister Amelia. Manipulative and charismatic, she corrupts those around her with her steadfast belief that Ruth is to be worshipped. Her devotion to Ruth accompanies an innate distain for men at The Well, believing the land should be inherited by women only. Sister Amelia’s constant influence in Ruth’s life drives a wedge between her marriage to Mark and festers suspicions in her mind. Lucas is portrayed as a naïve and sweet child of a drug-addicted mother, Angie, who may be brain damaged as a result. Ruth loves her troubled daughter, but finds it challenging to maintain contact with her while she battles addiction. Mark is the most difficult character to get a handle on, as a reflection of the conflicting emotions Ruth feels towards him.
The Well is not without its flaws, however, as it lacks concrete answers to pivotal plotlines. Frustratingly, we never actually learn why The Well is the only place in the country thriving throughout the nationwide drought. No explanation for the drought is even provided in the first place… We never find out if Mark is truly guilty of paedophilia and if he was wrongly acquitted. We never learn who Angie’s real father is, as it is made clear that Mark is not her biological parent. The novel lacks a wider perspective to Ruth’s world, but this is evidently because she is the only narrator we have.
Consequently, the lack of resolution in Chanter’s debut is forgivable and arguably adds to the mystique of The Well. It is a book to be revisited and scrutinised, finding new clues to draw your own conclusions as to what to believe. There is something enchanting about Chanter’s writing and her ability to create a perplexing story that teeters on the edge of fairy tale, without becoming too improbable. Undeniably, The Well is a genre-breaking accomplishment that introduces an exciting new voice to the literary world.