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.