CONDITIONS in Britain are unprecedented. Livelihoods are under threat, and the public mood is turning increasingly ugly. The Government has no choice but to impose drastic measures in an attempt to turn the tide. Sounds familiar? The enemy in The Well is not a virus, but a devastating drought. It has simply stopped raining — everywhere. That is, except on a remote hill farm where the water flows freely and the fields are fertile.
The hill farm, the Well, is the home of Ruth and Mark, who left London in search of a better life just as the drought was beginning. At first, all goes well: the self-sufficiency project is so absorbing that they barely notice that their farm is flourishing while others are failing. Their troubled daughter Angie and adored grandson Lucien arrive in time to celebrate a Christmas of “stars and glitter”.
Yet the situation soon worsens. Reports of milk shortages and half-empty supermarket shelves become impossible to miss. Their mysterious good fortune (never explained) leads to hostility from their neighbours and the suspicion of a nation. Accusations of witchcraft fly. Then a female religious cult springs up: Ruth is embraced by a group calling themselves the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho. Finally, a shocking act of violence blows everything out of the water.
The story unfolds largely in retrospect. The book opens with Ruth’s return to the Well after a spell in prison, to serve her sentence under house arrest, alone, apart from a roster of young men who, besides guarding her, are also testing soil samples to see if they can discover the secret of the fertility of the land. Ruth tries to piece together the events that ended in tragedy and shattered her world.
And this is where it becomes complicated: paralysed by shock and grief, Ruth can’t really remember what happened, and is plagued by fear of the truth. She is the classic unreliable narrator.
Through her memories, we observe the journey from innocent optimism in a corner of paradise to the breakdown of her relationship with Mark as the crisis evolves. While Mark rejects the Sisters, Ruth is sucked in. Their worship is comforting, a new-agey version of Christianity. The charismatic Sister Amelia is compelling in her message: Ruth has been chosen by God. The future is female: “This is a land for women, Ruth. The women shall inherit the earth.” In a world in which all other certainties appear to be falling away, Ruth finds herself embraced and understood.
By her own account, Ruth was not particularly religious before the arrival of the Sisters, although she notes wryly that her habit of dropping into country churches while on holiday, and having candles on her mantelpiece, was later referred to by “friends” in media stories as evidence of religious fanaticism. “The truth is I’d never been a regular churchgoer and I was very much the novice when I first joined the Sisters’ evening devotions.” She regards the solace that she found (at first, anyway) as a little like joining a book club.
And yet a key part in her coming to terms with events is played by the priest who visits her while she is under house arrest. To her surprise, her guards accede to her request for spiritual support as her human right; in truth, Ruth wants help from an outsider in filling in the blanks, as she has no access to the internet.
© Gaby GersterCatherine Chanter, author of The Well. Brought up in the West Country, she has described herself as “passionately in love with the English countryside”
The priest’s visits are conducted under the blinking eye of a security camera, and conversations are frequently coded, but they have a profound effect on her. “Looking at this fat, old priest and knowing the comfort he brings me, I understand that this is what ministry looks like: no virtual prayers, but rather the offer of one man to take on the suffering of another; no thousands worshipping online, but a few, waiting in line for quiet communion, their feet shuffling on flagstones worn by a thousand years of faith . . . a room full of quite ordinary sorrow, shared.”
It is not always easy to find novels in which the power of faith (for good and bad) is intelligently and sensitively explored. The novel is also unusual in that it is hard to place: not quite psychological thriller, not quite apocalyptic fable, but a mixture of both, and more besides.
That has not prevented The Well from winning at least one award (the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2013), and becoming a Richard and Judy choice. Its appeal lies partly in the lush painting of the landscape and sensuous descriptions. The author evokes a dystopian world that is chillingly easy to envisage, especially in 2020. The sense of menace is palpable as the narrative builds to its climax. Above all, it is a haunting study of the fragility of human relationships, and the choices that any of us might make if pushed to the limit.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
The Well by Catherine Chanter is published by Canongate at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-78211-466-6).
THE WELL — SOME QUESTIONS
- “We’d done nothing to deserve or receive or create this fertile land.” Who ought to “own” the Well?
- “I’d actually prefer to be part of their . . . drought.” Why does Ruth feel this way? Would you feel similarly?
- “I’m not convinced the World Wide Web is a wholly benevolent force.” In what ways is the internet a threat in the novel?
- “[W]hat was wrong with belief?” Why is Ruth so drawn to Sister Amelia?
- What is the difference between fanaticism and religion, for you?
- In what ways does “madness” manifest itself in the novel?
- “We could let all of them in. . . But then there’d be no room for us.” How would you decide who to let into the Well?
- What is the part played by “truth” in the novel? And why is it so important?
- What does it mean to be a “chosen woman” for Ruth? Is she given power?
- Can anyone in this novel be trusted? If so, who?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 8 January, we will print extra information about our next book, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-78470-821-4).
The Testaments (2019) picks up some 15 years after the end of Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It is narrated by three female characters: the infamous Aunt Lydia, who trains and directs the Handmaids; Agnes, a teenager who has grown up in Gilead; and Daisy, a younger teenager living in Canada. The connections between these women and their part in the potential downfall of the Gilead regime underpin the novel. Atwood, meanwhile, continues to use her exploration of the fictional Republic of Gilead to ask questions about gender, totalitarian regimes, and the complexities of human motivations. The Testaments won the Man Booker Prize.
The academic, author, and activist Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She did not begin formal schooling regularly until the age of 12, instead spending part of her early childhood in the forests of north Quebec, where her father studied entomology. While best known for her novels, Atwood is also a prolific writer of poetry, short stories, and critical studies, and has held a variety of academic posts throughout her career. A long-time activist, she campaigns particularly for environmental causes and human rights. Atwood is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has been presented with 16 honorary degrees. She currently lives in Toronto.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
February Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
March A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe