Lapping up mesmerising first effort

THE WELL<br><b>Catherine Chanter</b><br><i>Text Publishing</i>
THE WELL<br><b>Catherine Chanter</b><br><i>Text Publishing</i>

Catherine Chanter's first novel The Well is a tour de force, which won the Lucy Cavendish prize for unpublished fiction in 2013.

The Well is an idyllic property, in the west of England, bought by teacher Ruth and her husband Mark, as Britain enters its longest period of drought.

The couple move there to escape not only the rat-race of London, but the media, after Mark is accused of downloading child pornography on a work laptop.

They become the centre of attention again, as it continues to rain at The Well while the rest of the country is parched for years.

They work the land, sowing crops, and buying livestock.

However, they are reviled for their water and shunned by the struggling local community.

England's green and pleasant land is scorched and people riot about the hypocrisy of green lawns at Chequers while the masses have to observe dire water restrictions.

The Well is seen as a magical place, with hundreds camping outside its boundaries, and it attracts Ruth's daughter Angie, a recidivist drug-taker, and her young son Lucien.

The Sisters of the Rose of Jericho, led by Sister Amelia, arrive and enchant Ruth, anointing her as the Chosen One, isolating her from Mark, and all males, leading to disastrous consequences for Lucien.

Ruth barely copes with her various responsibilities, and is swayed by Voice, revealing a propensity to psychological problems. She is incarcerated for a few months, then held prisoner at The Well.

The first-person narrative shifts between events and a period of introspection and searching for the truth.

The language is deft and confident.

All thoughts are laid bare, and Ruth ''sifts through conversations, like an audible photograph album''.

In a crucial letter, ''curving vowels wrap around my neck'', and ''straight lines of unforgiving consonants pierce me''.

The book is mesmerising and, like Ruth, drives you in the quest for clarity and resolution.

I was not disappointed.

The real mystery is why it was unpublished for so long.

My hope is that Chanter has not dried up, but can follow this debut with similar skill and virtuosity.

• Rachel Gurney is an avid Dunedin reader.

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