Book Review: The Well, Catherine Chanter (2015)

May 25th, 2015 12:34 pm by Kelly Garbato

One person’s paradise is another person’s perdition.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape, pedophilia, and domestic violence.)

There is one last emotion, though, which I have not anticipated. I am feeling smug. There, you thought you were just guarding a middle-aged crank who had delusions of grandeur, but now you’ll have to think twice, smart-arse.

Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day. I dance like a witch doctor around the sitting room.

Determined to salvage her marriage – not to mention what’s left of her husband’s sanity – Ruth Ardingly agrees to trade in her London home for a small farm in the country. Hailing from a long line of farmers, it was always Mark’s dream to work the land, reveling in nature and solitude and self-sufficiency. Yet he forfeited these plans when, as a college student, he met and fell in love with Ruth – already pregnant from a one-night stand. Instead, he pursued a law degree, committed himself to Ruth and their daughter Angie, and settled for an ordinary, middle-class existence.

And then came the child pornography, discovered on his work laptop. Though Mark was investigated and eventually exonerated, that didn’t stop the harassment and social ostracization. So Ruth acquiesced, hoping that the change of scenery and fresh air would do them both a world of good. Perhaps it might have, had the move not come smack dab in the middle of a drought – a drought to which their new, thirty-acre paradise seems immune.

It’s a reliable water table, the real estate agent assures them. But once they get settled, Ruth and Mark come to realize that it’s so much more than this: not a night passes without rain at The Well, even if it’s just a light drizzle. And yet Ruth hardly ever sees the rain for herself; she just experiences it second-hand, through dew left on the morning grass, or puddles deposited in the drive come dawn. (Magic!) Meanwhile, the rest of the UK is ticking off the days since it last rained – and they’re well past the hundred mark.

As the drought drags on, resulting in rampant inflation, poverty, hunger, drug addiction, and social unrest, the world’s attention focuses on The Well. In a rerun of London, Ruth and Mark are shut out by their previously friendly neighbors; things quickly escalate from chilly behavior to outright violence, including the murder of their dog Bru. Accusations run the gamut: cheating, water theft, illicit chemicals, even witchcraft. What initially brought them together as a couple – the teamwork needed to get the farm up and running – soon threatens to tear them apart: Ruth begs Mark to abandon ship, while he holds tight to his dream. Isolated and lonely, Ruth begins to spiral into depression, while Mark finds solace on his plow – and at the bottom of a bottle.

Into this morass steps Angie; her five-year-old son Lucien; and the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho, led by the enigmatic and fervent Sister Amelia. Staying the summer with her adopted family of traveler friends, Angie introduces Ruth to the Sisters, who worship her as the chosen one – and The Well as paradise. A “feminist” reincarnation of Christianity, the Sisters believe that women are poised to inherit the earth, already spoiled by men, and infuse it with new life, as Ruth has at The Well. Amelia is well-positioned to further the wedge between Ruth and Mark – but her real rival proves to be Lucien, to whom Ruth plans to leave The Well.

When Lucien’s lifeless body is found floating in the pond, there’s no shortage of suspects: The angry townspeople. Grandpa Mark, the alleged pedophile. The Sisters of the Rose, whose religious teachings demand a Well free of/from men. Or Ruth herself, who by this time is caught in the throes of Amelia’s religious fervor and quite possibly delusional.

Fast-forward two months, to Ruth’s homecoming. Sent away after torching the Sisters’ caravan, she’s back – and determined to find out who murdered Lucien, even if that someone was her. Yet this won’t prove easy under the terms of her house arrest, and with The Well under government occupation. She enlists the help of a sympathetic guard and a retired military priest to help her learn the truth about those last, terrible days in paradise.

For a 400-page book, I’m surprised by how little I have to say about The Well. Usually I’m brimming with commentary – either positive or negative – but not so here. The story has promise, but ultimately failed to resonate with me.

I think the main problem is the sheer verbosity. This is a long book, and not in the awesome “OMG I hope it never ends!” kind of way. More like “Dear gods, will it ever end?”

I’m reminded of another recent read, S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins, which I called “a wicked weird mashup of genres: ghost story, murder mystery, psychological thriller, and (oddly enough) nature writing.” Set on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland, Tremayne relies on descriptions of the physical environment – a dark, desolate winter landscape – to augment the atmosphere of the story. I’d characterize The Well in similar terms (minus the ghost story aspect), but here, I think the nature writing is to the detriment of the plot. While the prose is often lovely, it’s also excessive – too often we’re bogged down in lengthy, protracted descriptions, especially of the setting. Consequently, this slows down the action and detracts attention from the mystery. Which is an engaging one, I might add.

Of the main parts of the story – which for me consist of Ruth and Mark’s tumultuous marriage; the resentment harbored by the townspeople; the religion that springs up around Ruth and The Well; and Ruth’s search for the truth – it’s the early, more real-world events that I found most interesting: the townspeople. I’m a dystopia junkie, so this angle naturally grabbed my attention. So I was both surprised and disappointed when the police ruled out the townies as suspects almost right away, leaving only Ruth, Mark, and the Sisters (read: the nefarious Sister Amelia). This cut back on some of the tension and suspense, I think.

It also doesn’t help the “mystery” angle that Ruth is forced to carry out her “investigation” while under house arrest – confined to portions of her property (sometimes just the cottage), banned from using the telephone or Internet, and only allowed a small group of pre-approved visitors. She’s forced to guilt-trip her priest Hugh into Googling info during his down time and smuggling printouts to her in between relevant pages of the Bible. Not very captivating detective work, you know?

Also, I expected to find the Sisters’ misandrist religion a little more interesting than I did. I’m a feminist! I love playing on stereotypes that feminist hate men and flourish on their tears! (Hey! There’s a thought re: The Well!) But it just…meh. Didn’t do much for me.

Maybe it was the characters, none of whom I really felt a connection with or affinity for.

And what’s up with Hugh’s cow? Annalise is the last cow in England, and somehow she’s able to give perpetual milk. News flash: like all mammals, cows need to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: A little. Ruth, Mark, and Angie are all white, though I got the impression that Lucien is biracial, based on this sentence: “But now he’s gone brown […] like me.” Many people are described as having “brown” skin, but since they all work outdoors, I think most are just heavily tanned.

It’s strongly implied that Sisters Amelia and Eve have a romantic relationship, and there’s a bit of a lesbian subtext to Ruth’s relationship with Amelia that isn’t explored much.

Angie and her band of fellow travelers struggle with drug addiction and help keep each other clean. Mark is possibly an alcoholic. Sister Jake suffers from an unnamed/undiagnosed mental disorder, self-harms, and is a survivor of domestic violence. Ruth seems to have auditory hallucinations, and suffers from depression after Lucien’s death.

Animal-friendly elements: Just the opposite. Mark and Ruth farm animals; they fawn over the birth of lambs in the spring, only to send them off to slaughter when they grow into sheep. They have hens – weirdly described as ex-battery hens – they keep for eggs; perhaps they “rescued” them when large-scale farmers were forced to divest themselves of stock due to the drought? They buy their dog Bru as a puppy and let him run loose and unsupervised; he’s ultimately poisoned and killed by a disgruntled towns person. Oh, and Hugh has a “dairy” cow – the last cow in England, or close to it – who somehow keeps producing milk even though she’s never pregnant.
 

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