The Well Author: Catherine Chanter Publisher: Atria Books, May 19, 2015 Format: Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages List Price: $25.00 (print) ISBN: 9781476772769 (print) Review Copy: Provided by the Publisher
From the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, a brilliantly haunting and suspenseful debut set in modern-day Britain where water is running out everywhere except at The Well—the farm of one seemingly ordinary family whose mysterious good fortune leads to suspicion, chaos, and ultimately a shocking act of violence.
Ruth Ardingly has just been released from prison to serve out a sentence of house arrest for arson and suspected murder at her farm, The Well. Beyond its borders, some people whisper she is a witch; others a messiah. For as soon as Ruth returns to The Well, rain begins to fall on the farm. And it has not rained anywhere else in the country in over three years.
Ruth and her husband Mark had moved years before from London to this ancient idyll in the hopes of starting their lives over. But then the drought began, and as the surrounding land dried up and died, and The Well grew lush and full of life, they came to see their fortune would come at a price. From the envy of their neighbors to the mandates of the government, from the fanaticism of a religious order called the Sisters of the Rose to the everyday difficulties of staying close as husband and wife, mother and child—all these forces led to a horrifying crime: the death of their seven-year-old grandson, drowned with cruel irony in one of the few ponds left in the countryside.
Now back at The Well, Ruth must piece together the tragedy that shattered her marriage, her family, and her dream. For she believes her grandson’s death was no accident, and that the murderer is among the people she trusted most. Alone except for her guards on a tiny green jewel in a world rapidly turning to dust, Ruth begins to confront her worst fears and learns what really happened in the dark heart of The Well.
A tour de force about ordinary people caught in the tide of an extraordinary situation, Catherine Chanter’s The Well is a haunting, beautifully written, and utterly believable novel that probes the fragility of our personal relationships and the mystical connection between people and the places they call home.
Water impacts all of us on the most basic level. It sustains all life. It's used in manufacturing, transportation, and in the production of electricity among so many other things. If it stopped raining tomorrow and the reservoirs ran dry, how would it impact you? Life without water is scarcely life at all. Now imagine that you are the only one in the country with access to water. You and your property will thrive while all around you withers and dies. Welcome to The Well, where you will be envied and feared, hated and worshipped.
In Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, Ruth Ardingly and her husband Mark leave London to escape a scandal that he cannot seem to shake. At the beginning of a dry spell, they purchase the titular farm in the English countryside for its remote location and postcard charm. They make new friends, entertain her daughter Angie and grandson Lucien, and make a go of Mark's dream of self-sufficient living. All is right in their lush corner of the world until the dry spell turns into a deadly drought, and the only place where rain continues to fall is at The Well. The Ardinglys' inexplicable good fortune attracts the attention of their envious neighbors, the press, a suspicious government, and an order of nuns, The Sisters of the Rose, who have a particular interest in the property, and in Ruth. With this powder keg of conflicting interests, something is bound to go wrong.
The story opens after everything has come crashing down, and Ruth is being transported from prison back to The Well. She is being placed under house arrest for arson and her involvement in an unspecified death. Allowed only the company of the three soldiers guarding her and an occasional visit from a local priest, she is truly isolated from the world. She passes her empty hours piecing together the events leading up to her arrest, hoping to solve the murder and finally find some semblance of peace.
It's difficult to tell if Ruth is an unreliable narrator and, by extension, the motives of those around her. She and Mark have weathered many hardships in their marriage and have stood together throughout, but after the London scandal can he really be trusted? Angie, a recovering addict, is frequently at odds with her mother and lives an unconventional life with a traveling group of friends who are also in recovery. Is she an appropriate influence on young Lucien, and should Ruth take a stand against this vagabond existence for her only grandchild? And while the Sisters of the Rose offer Ruth a sense of purpose and belonging, what do they really want?
Although The Well is a murder mystery, to simply categorize it that way is to do it an injustice. It is not an action packed story, but a beautifully written time-lapse view of the Ardinglys' days at The Well. Chanter has a lovely, ethereal style that suits the story, but might not be everyone's cup of tea. I would still recommend this book to anyone with a love of character-driven fiction. Ruth is authentically flawed and fascinating: all at once nurturing and uncertain, bright and naive, needy and headstrong, sympathetic and selfish. The hidden pieces of the story revealed in the last handful of chapters, and the consequences accepted by those still standing, left me unexpectedly teary-eyed.
I also want to make mention of the website, The Ardingly Well. Intended to be Ruth's blog to keep their London friends apprised of the goings-on at The Well, it is a nice companion piece to the book, but I was disappointed to find so few entries. I believe the site was only maintained until the UK release of the book in March.
The Well is the sort of book that can prompt a sort of empathetic self-examination of personal connections and priorities. Ruth's story will, I believe, stay with me for quite some time. This is truly an exceptional debut.