Thursday, 20 November 2014

Catherine Chanter's The Well: A unique, outstanding debut

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well (5 March 2015) by Catherine Chanter

When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.

The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.

Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.

What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.

There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.

The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).

The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.

TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut.

I received an advance review copy of The Well from the publisher through NetGalley.

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