Sometimes we need to give things space, and don’t realise this until it’s too late. A few weeks ago I read Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point, a stunning novel about family and climate change. It still punches me in the chest every time I think about it. So it was quite unfair to Catherine Chanter for me to read The Well so soon afterwards - a novel about family, tough decisions and climate change. I read The Well because I was inspired by Anchor Point, but what I should have done is waited, created some distance from something seemingly so similar, in order to judge The Well more fairly. Perhaps in another time in the future, I would have connected more sincerely with The Well; there is certainly potential there. But at this time and place, it just didn’t grab me.
The Well is set in Britain, where the country has gone without rain for three years. That is, except for a rural property called The Well, which has miraculously dodged drought and remains a lush paradise. Ruth and Mark, the lucky owners of the property, are increasingly under pressure from neighbours and indeed the whole of Britain, and a tense envy of the precious resource builds. Then comes the arrival of their daughter Angie and her son Lucien, followed by the Sisters of the Rose - a religious cult drawn towards the miracle of rain - and Ruth slowly loses control of both herself and the properly. She is swept into a nightmare that ends in her incarcerated at The Well, guarded twenty-four hours a day and fenced in against the rest of the world.
It crept up on people, he said, that’s what Will and he reckoned. Year after year of below average rainfall, the odd farmer in the south-east going bust, car washes out of order and then before you know it, drought. He wasn’t surprised The Well was such big news.
What begins as an interesting and plausible premise, unfortunately slowly declines with the arrival of the Sisters of the Rose, and The Well moves from cli-fi (climate change fiction) closer to dystopian fiction, similar perhaps to some of Margaret Atwood’s work. The Sisters begin to take hold of Ruth, until she finally sinks into their grasp:
The other sisters had their own stories. Eve gave up a penthouse apartment in a converted warehouse and her thriving PR business; Jack left her violent partner; Dorothy said goodbye to her lovely grandchildren in Canada. They gave up money and friendships and ways of ordering the knives and forks in long familiar table drawers because of Sister Amelia. They became the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho because of Sister Amelia. And I became one of them also, initially wading in slowly, until one evening I found that I could no longer touch the bottom and to go back was more difficult than to go over.
The story climaxes with the death of Ruth’s grandson Lucien, and much of the novel is dedicated to Ruth going over events at The Well, from the arrival of the Sisters to how she reached the point of house arrest, where the novel begins. In many ways it reads as a slow burn thriller, with simmering tensions and sub-plots dotted throughout. There is Mark, Ruth’s husband, who was exonerated as a pedophile but cannot shake the publicity, Mark and Ruth’s terse marriage, their daughter who is a recovering addict, and all of this takes place on a plot of land that immediately alienates them from the rest of the country who are deeply suffering from the drought.
The Well reminded me of the anecdote of the frog in hot water: if the frog is placed in boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if the frog sits in cold water that is brought to the boil, it won’t realise the danger and will slowly be boiled to death. Alice Robinson built the tension of the drought slowly and carefully in Anchor Point, weaving in the stories of the family and the weather to a point where you couldn’t escape. Catherine Chanter, however, throws you straight into a boiling pot. My initial reaction reading The Well was to jump out. I immediately sensed the danger and felt vulnerable from very early on. I didn’t give up on the novel, I persisted, but I never lost the feeling of being burnt.
This is partly due to Chanter’s narrative, which I found quite alienating at times. I felt on occasion she was trying a little to hard to write in the style of the old classics - novels such as William Thackerey’s Vanity Fair or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - grand epics that create tension as a way of reporting on class and society. Sentences such as: “So it is we philosophise as day-to-day people do and I feel quite proud of my ordinariness” felt jarring to me as a contemporary reader. Particularly in larger novels, I want the narrative to flow, to be swept up in it, but particularly in first person narration, I want to feel an honest connection to the words spoken, that they feel plausible and right. Ruth’s character is a complex one, and indeed what brings the novel together, but the occasional speed bumps in her narration interrupted the book and made for a disjointed read.
The Well is an interesting novel and certainly feels like it is coming out at the right time. That we slowly get swept up in a denial climate change and lack of action until it’s too late, feels incredibly plausible and indeed on point in Australia and across the world. There are some interesting ideas about religion and the need for redemption after we have sinned against the earth. The family drama is less thought out and at times felt not quite polished enough for me. Families are messy by nature, but this one didn’t feel right. I also found the ending infuriating— after 350 pages of tension the last twenty pages felt formulaic and desperate for resolution, negating a lot of the interesting questions thrown to the reader throughout the book. But perhaps I’m being unfair. This book will certainly appeal and will have a strong audience. I would definitely recommend it to lovers of Atwood and literary sci-fi or dystopian novels. Unfortunately I just couldn’t shake off the feeling of being thrown into a boiling pot.
As well as the focus on water, the characters in The Well seem fascinated by milk, one of the great casualties of the drought:
For us, if our turbine is working, the pump is working and if the pump is working, we will have water from The Well. Water, but no milk. I loathe the powder substitute, it tastes of the city, but the drought has forced a lot of substitution one way or another: no rain, no grass, no grass, no cows, no cows, no milk. We were going to have a cow in Year Three of the dream, but we never got that far.
With each mention of how much Ruth missed having real milk in her tea, I craved it more and more. It was a visceral connection with the novel that led me to make Donna Hay’s Chai Rice Pudding, which I lingered over as I finished The Well. I made a half batch which worked perfectly, enough for an indulgent breakfast and cold leftovers for afternoon treats. Despite halving the recipe I still used two chai tea bags and appreciated the strong flavour. Next time I make it I’d like to try it without the sugar and instead finishing with a dribble of honey on top to taste, the recipe’s only fault was that it was too sweet for me. But the creamy rice and sharp zing from the ginger and spices were warming and nourishing, an indulgent way to treat yourself on an autumnal morning, as the clouds slowly part to reveal a mild, crisp day.