The Well by Catherine Chanter
Seeking a new life in the wake of a crisis, Ruth Ardingly and her husband Mark escape to the Welsh countryside, taking up residence on a farm known as The Well. Lush and picturesque, the couple envision a simple life, but paradise has a problem – their farm is the only place in Britain to see rain in three years, a literal oasis in a drought-ravaged country. Outsiders’ antipathy turns to hostility, and the Ardinglys become ostracised and isolated from the world and each other. When a group of travelling nuns arrives to worship at The Well, the lonely Ruth is infatuated by their calmness and the bliss she finds in surrendering to them.
Catherine Chanter’s debut novel grabs you from the beginning – the book opens with Ruth under house arrest and The Well in government hands. There are obvious dystopian/science fiction influences at play, but the novel’s focus is a much more private apocalypse – the unsolved murder of Ruth and Mark’s beloved grandson. In flashbacks, we see Ruth’s journey from arrival at The Well through to the appearance of the nuns, and the murder – a tragedy that is flagged early in the novel, but the delayed telling of which lends a real sense of dread to every page turn.
Chanter’s characters – particularly the sulking, embittered Mark and the enigmatic head nun, Sister Amelia – are complex to the point of being inscrutable: equal parts sympathetic, beguiling and terrifying. The mystery at the heart of The Well is so gripping for exactly this reason. Wracked by guilt and unable to trust her own memories, Ruth can only guess what those around her – as well as herself – are capable of. The Well is a remarkably strong debut, drawing from a broad cross-section of genres to emerge as something else entirely – a seductive, inventive mystery and an absorbing read.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.