Catherine Chanter’s “The Well” is a slow-burning suspense tale set in the near future. A shifting climate sends the United Kingdom into a 3-year long drought that has the government scrambling to manage the slow catastrophe. The only place that isn’t affected by the drought is The Well, a countryside property owned by Ruth and Mark Ardingly.
The Well is a miraculous place, an oasis where rain inexplicably continues to fall. While Ruth and Mark enjoy living on their little Eden in the midst of a parched nation, The Well draws unwanted attention to them and leads to a terrible crime.
“The Well” is structured like a ghost story. A troubled family escapes their past, leaving the city and unanswered questions behind, and moves to an enchanting country estate. There, the haunted property chips away at their new-found lives and drives the family apart. In this case, the haunted property is not menaced by macabre spectres. Instead, The Well’s magical life-giving properties of rain sets up a tragedy.
The book opens with Ruth returning to The Well under house arrest, accused of arson. Ruth creates nicknames for her three guards, refusing to call them by their real names, as a way to manufacture some control where she has little freedom.
The novel splits into two concurrent parts as Ruth tells her tragic story of living at The Well, while also moving forward in life as a prisoner living at The Well. She is a haunted woman, a little unstable, and her memories can’t be entirely trusted.
People are jealous and suspicious of The Well’s verdant land, and suspect that the Ardinglys are cheating on water rations. Ruth and Mark turn inward, cut off from the local community. Then the cultish Sisters of the Rose of Jericho arrive uninvited at The Well with mystical rituals, some Christian language, and some unusual notions. They convince Ruth she is a special chosen one.
I found the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho creepy and quite interesting. Are they Christian? What are their intentions? What divides mental illness from religious euphoria? Who is the charismatic Sister Amelia and why does she hate men?
Chanter is a poet, and she uses words to paint vivid scenes. There are some absolutely beautiful descriptions in this book. Chanter’s prose does great justice for her love and appreciation of the English countryside.
The science-fiction aspects of The Well, and the dystopian politics of a nation forced to manage under extreme weather, are not explored as much as I hoped. The Well remains a magical, but unexplained, phenomenon. The struggling world outside of The Well remains frustratingly out of focus. But that’s not the book Chanter is writing. The Well and the strange weather are there to serve Ruth’s story.
There is some beautiful and commanding writing here, telling a dramatic and suspenseful story.