WHEN RUTH ARDINGLY is nervous, she runs a cold tap in the kitchen. Ruth has the luxury to use water in this way, even in the midst of the world’s longest drought, because she lives on inexplicably lush farmland, a natural wonderland aptly named The Well. Ruth even takes fanatical, sensual baptisms in the well springs. She flaunts this access to water casually as the rest of the world dries up and crumbles into social unrest around her.
Ruth Ardingly is the narrator of Catherine Chanter’s The Well. Chanter is British, and her new novel takes place in the English countryside, but Los Angeles readers may find its setting eerily familiar. With media coverage of California’s water conservation issues fresh in my mind, it was easy to understand this novel’s treatment of the element as a precious commodity. Last Earth Day, a nearby park handed out five-minute timers for showers. My dishes and laundry pile up before I finally wash them in one great, but efficiently quick, full load. Reading about Ruth’s running tap instinctively causes me to cringe, because as much as Ruth is able to indulge in the resources surrounding her, the reader can still sense the value of water in her world. Reading about Ruth taking a bath in The Well is akin to watching Scrooge McDuck swim through gold coins in his safe: it’s a display of excess. Though Ruth has plenty water, she never ceases to covet its magic.
The water also serves as a reminder of Ruth’s isolation. The rest of the world may be starved for water, whereas Ruth is starving for the rest of the world. She has water in the midst of an epic drought, earning her wealth and security — but this ultimately makes her a target. Her personal oasis is envied and feared, scrutinized in the media and shamed by her neighbors.
It is fitting that the novel opens with Ruth being placed under house arrest at The Well for misuse of resources. However, this is a minor bureaucratic charge. The greater crime is the recent, mysterious murder of Lucien, Ruth’s grandson, and Ruth’s time under house arrest is spent desperately attempting to piece together the unsolved mystery of Lucien’s murder.
The Well is both fantasy and mystery, toying with the genres without ever completely falling into either category — at least, not in any typical, by-the-numbers way. For one, the book is not pure fantasy. In a world devoid of any other supernatural elements, The Well is the only location in England where it continues to rain, where the crops grow with seemingly minimal effort. This ecosystem is at once magical and natural, a setting that is completely of this world even when it doesn’t seem like it should be. The book is also not the typical detective story. Ruth, try as she might, is not able to solve the mystery of Lucian’s murder through a trail of clues at The Well; she must reach out to loved ones from her past — something she is inspired to do by more than simply the need to seek answers. Perhaps genre-combining in this way is a particularly smart move for Chanter, as this debut novel from the UK author never pigeonholes her style or her storytelling choices. Ultimately Chanter’s novel is about people: the ways they love, the ways they fight, the ways they question one another and themselves.
During her house arrest, Ruth reflects on the family life she has lost. Almost half of the novel consists of flashbacks as Ruth digs through her memories to make sense of her grandson’s murder. In her earliest memories of The Well, it is an escape, a dream home. She and her husband Mark had fled to The Well from London shortly after Mark was publically accused of pedophilia — yet another unsolved mystery, which the narrative uses to toy with Ruth’s faith in her husband. A bit young for grandparents, Mark and Ruth have a passionate relationship in their early days at The Well, caring for Lucien as if he was their own son. The family is as much in love with their new home as they are with each other, adapting to rural life quickly, tending to the land carefully, even longingly, and at times obsessively.
No strangers to public scrutiny after Mark’s terial in London, Mark and Ruth defend their majestically fertile land when the neighborhood turns on them, but tensions are high and their respective devotions to the land itself only assist in driving the couple apart from one another. Mark refuses to leave The Well as Ruth begins to come undone from its pressures. The water continues to flow as Ruth’s marriage disintegrates, as her daughter disappears further into a life of drug abuse, and long after Ruth’s grandson is murdered.
Even under house arrest, long separated from her husband, daughter, and most everyone else, Ruth recognizes she is fortunate to bask in the beauty of The Well. She notes that her guards and the priest who visits her are all fortunate to be assigned the location. She enjoys the time she is allowed to spend outside, wandering the grounds of the land, reflecting. The Well never loses its magic, even after it has become the gravesite for her grandson: the location, and the water itself, a tool for his murder. Ruth’s baptism in the springs of The Well, performed by a religious group called The Sisters of the Rose of Jericho and led by the group’s fundamentalist leader, Amelia, captures the essence of life-and-death symbolism that Ruth sees on the property:
Amelia lowered her hand and the Sisters lowered me into the water, my body arched and gasping, one at my head, two at my waist, one at my feet; then they raised me up again with a rush of water draining from me, running down my face, trickling over my chest, swirling between my legs. Again they lowered me and raised me. I arched. Then a third time they raised me and lowered me, and the fourth found me elsewhere in the way that only the dying or the transported are absent.
The Well is invigorating, but also has the power to cause a person to lose herself. The Well is almighty, an ongoing life force that also holds the power of death, with deadly nightshade growing among its luscious crops.
The magic of the place is further brought out through the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho, who worship The Well’s natural wonder and seduce Ruth to join their tribe. However, this fervent, female-only religious sect invites fascism and exclusion. When the Sisters don’t accept the men in Ruth’s life, her relationship with Mark grows increasingly distant. Even during the peak of her spiritual connection to The Well, writing prayers to it in her journal regularly, what Ruth truly desired was a connection not to The Well itself, but to the other people who loved it. “You can’t have everything,” Mark warned her, sensing that the Sisters wanted him gone. But Ruth refused to acknowledge he was right, clinging to the support system of the Sisters, yet refusing to completely let go of her relationship with Mark, and continuing to smother Lucian in absolute adoration.
With such a focus on its characters and their relationships, much of the novel is driven by Ruth’s internal conflicts. She loves Mark, but often knowingly withholds herself from him as tensions mount between them. She believes in the Sisters, yet is also wary of them, particularly Sister Amelia. Ruth deeply cares for Lucian, but she is unable to recall the night of his murder, questioning her own innocence and how far she could possibly take her devotion to the Sisters. Her suspicions eat away at her. Everyone she knew and cared for, including herself, becomes a suspect, causing a push-and-pull effect in her recollections of everyone — her suspicions layered with her love.
The natural riches of The Well, as with any other form of wealth, can divide those who reside within or surrounding it. The Well is undeniably a great presence, one that the Sisters, Mark, Ruth, and even Lucian, with his childhood delight in learning to garden and playing out in the fields, all admire. Yet they are unable to share their love of The Well together, harmoniously. Like their own miniature Jerusalem, the power of the location inspires conflict. Mark and the Sisters have their own reasons for admiring The Well — for Mark it was a personal refuge to escape his troubled past, and for the Sisters, it is a haven for their deity, referred to only as The Rose, a powerful, natural, feminine force. Ruth is caught in the middle. When Ruth ends up alone — albeit with her guards — at The Well at last, confined there by house arrest, as much as she still clearly appreciates the land, it is an empty prize, one coveted by everyone but herself.
When the truth of Lucian’s murder is at last revealed, it feels a bit rushed. The pace picks up, and the pages explode with exposition; characters reappear and just as quickly disappear again, perhaps a bit too suddenly and easily after Ruth has spent so much time in isolation. The resolution comes fast, but luckily Chanter knows not to wrap the ending up too tidily. There are loose ends left for the reader to contemplate the characters’ futures and to leave us with just enough dissatisfaction to keep things interesting. In the end, the heart of the novel remains the same. The Well is a story about love, about having everything you could ever want or need in abundance, and about all the ways that wealth can tear a person away from those they loved in the media and shamed by her neighbors.
Anna Mavromati teaches English at Santa Monica College and El Camino College.