The Well
Catherine Chanter
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Buy *The Well* by Catherine Chanteronline

The Well
Catherine Chanter
Atria Books
400 pages
May 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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I was initially excited to pick up Chanter’s debut novel, in which months of unexplained draught is reeking havoc on the United Kingdom. Chanter posits a fascinating scenario, relationships collapsing under the weight of these external forces, though her story often comes across as bloated with too much plot. The author has an accomplished prose style and a vivid imagination; however, I found the book far too long. Shortening the novel by about hundred pages would have benefited this tired reader, who ended up skimming the final pages to find out the outcome.

The story concerns Ruth Ardingly, a quiet, middle-aged woman who lives alone during the gradual breakdown of modern society. She’s under an indefinite period of detection in her brick cottage that sits on The Well, thirty acres of field and woodland in rural Wales that she purchased with her husband Mark who as the novel opens has inexplicably left her. The Well is piece of paradise, a strange and mercurial place where the sun shines through the dappled leaves and where it constantly rains, while the rest of the country is totally scorched and where the draught has forced “a lot of substitution one way or another.”

Ruth is guarded by three young officials whom she nicknames Anon, Boy, and Three. They constantly record and monitor her every move as she drifts through the days on “a river of memories,” recalling how "our Well gleamed green like a tiny emerald” and became a paradise of sorts, fulfilling her and Mark’s dream of moving out of London after twenty-two years of marriage. Driven by Mark’s payoff from his unfair dismissal from his job and fueled by the dream of getting away from it all and starting again in the country, Mark and Ruth travel to The Well with their beloved grandson, Lucien, and Ruth’s daughter, Angie, who is trying yet again to sort herself out after a period of substance abuse.

Of course, what’s done cannot be undone. Ruth assumes “the leaden weight” of what might have been. As her recollections of happier times unfold, we see a shell of a woman “as brittle, straight, and empty as the hollow stalks of the Queen Anne’s lace.” It doesn’t take long for the rumors of The Well’s strange, perpetual rainfall to leak out into the local community and into the wider world. Gradually under siege, the Ardinglys are contacted continuously by everyone from estate agents to extraterrestrial enthusiasts to religious fanatics. As Mark grows physically stronger, reveling in this new sense of accomplishment at living off the land, Ruth mentally deteriorates. In between desultory attempts at putting something into the farm, she becomes more feckless, but not before she finds endless excuses to go to Angie and look after Lucien.

This is a story about our inherent passivity, our belief that someone else will surely take care of things when they go bad. It also explores our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and how our blindness to perceive and then resist those changes can dismantle and ultimately destroy the vibrant world around us. As Chanter moves back and forth between Ruth, imprisoned at The Well in an indefinite period of detention under the Drought Emergency Regulation Act, to the wires and the helicopters and the men in brown suits, we see Ruth trying desperately to rebuild her insular, metaphorical world of The Well, where her marriage to Mark was not what it at first seemed. In reality, only a wall separates Ruth from the fathomless emptiness of a dead child’s bedroom.

As conditions worsen the wider world, tragedy strikes, and Ruth must find new ways to adapt. Amid speculation that Mark had always been “a pervert,” and equal speculation that that she has always been a religious fanatic, Ruth cannot resist being seduced by the sinister, charismatic Sister Amelia and Amelia’s cohorts, the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho--fundamentalists with a perhaps psychotic bent. Ruth allows the Sisters to live on the property to her peril, at first enchanted by the warm glow of the Sisters’ togetherness as they carefully insinuate themselves into Ruth’s life with the generous gift of salvation.

Exploring Ruth’s difficult and fractured relationship with Angie, Chanter ramps up the drama with description of a marriage in crisis, the leaden animosities between Ruth and Mark too difficult to share along with a vague discontent that has crept into this new life at The Well, a life that is not what any of them originally signed up for. Sister Amelia, meanwhile, holds center stage, hating Lucien because he’s not part of her vision, this “grandson” who is nothing but “an obstacle” on the road to paradise. Ruth drifts farther from her husband, the duplicity plunging easily from her lips. Mark senses the changes in his marriage but is impotent to stop them. Threatening to leave, he’s unable to cope with Ruth’s association with Sister Amelia, who he sees as just another religious freak.

Pulling us all together and then apart like a puppet master, Chanter’s novel is still worth the effort even with its deficiencies. As assignations of pedophilia and then a terrible child murderer are exposed, Chanter spins a provocative tale of survival in a time of chaos. While the essential mystery present in the story--why The Well is one of the only places spared by drought--is never fully answered, the book works best as a psychological thriller, Chanter doing an interesting job of exploring the bonds of friendship, marriage, trust, and the perceptions people have of one another.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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