The Well is Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley’s sixth published novel. Like her earlier book, the critically acclaimed Foxybaby (1985), it is a disturbing work characterized by ambiguity and illuminated by Jolley’s sure, concise prose style. Jolley’s other books include Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1984) and Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1984), both of which have been published in the United States, as well as several collections of short stories. The Well is both an absorbing character study and an offbeat psychological thriller. Set in a small rural community in Australia, the novel outlines the relationship between a lonely spinster and the young girl she takes into her home, tracing its growing intimacy and sudden disintegration. The ambiguity of much of the story is matched by a mounting sense of horror at the macabre turns it takes—a mood belied by Jolley’s controlled, understated style.
The novel opens with two brief segments—the first only a few lines in length and the second several pages long—which outline the story’s two key themes: Hester Harper’s fascination with a young orphan, Katherine, and the crucial road accident on which the plot is centered. The opening lines find Hester’s father asking her what she has brought him from the store and Hester replying, “I’ve brought Katherine, but she’s for me.” In the second introductory segment, the two women are returning home at night when their car, with Katherine at the wheel, hits something—or someone—in the road. The segment closes with the body caught on the “kangaroo catcher” attached to the fender and Hester ordering Katherine to pull the car up close to the well. The story then backtracks to Hester’s first meeting with Katherine and proceeds chronologically to the accident and the events that follow it.
The effects of this unusual structure are twofold. The opening segment provides a framework within which the reader will view the remainder of the novel, certain from the start that there is an element beyond simple concern in Hester’s interest in Katherine. It is a point which Jolley expands upon as their relationship develops, and it is central to Hester’s decision to throw the body down the well, thus binding Katherine to her by covering up the death she has caused. The second result of the opening segments is the atmosphere of suspense they lend to the story’s first half. Like a loaded gun concealed before the action begins, the mysterious early depiction of the accident charges the novel with tension as the reader waits for the arrival of the scene in the chronological narrative. What seems in the first chapters to be a relatively uneventful exploration of a relationship between two women is given an added layer of meaning when the reader is aware of the crisis they will soon face.
The relationship itself springs from Hester’s deep emotional needs as well as her sense of isolation, and Jolley has created an intriguing figure in her central character. Acerbic, spinsterish, and lame in one leg, Hester has a flinty reserve that is broken only by her love for Katherine. Reared in isolated surroundings by her widowed father, Hester has had only one other previous emotional attachment—to her governess, a relationship which was also torn apart by catastrophe. When she first meets Katherine, Hester is living with her father on his ranch, miles from the nearest town. On impulse, she takes the fifteen-year-old girl in and is soon training her to sew and keep house. Katherine fills a void in Hester’s life, and after her father’s death, the two become inseparable, with Hester discouraging their already limited contact with the outside world. Her attachment to Katherine borders on the obsessive, and she silently resents the girl’s letters to a friend from her days in a convent orphanage. The friend Joanna represents for Hester all the elements in the outside world that might conspire to lure Katherine away from her, and an impending visit from the girl has Hester in a state of dread until the accident forces her attention toward more immediate concerns.
Jolley tells her story from Hester’s point of view; thus, knowledge of other characters and events is filtered through her perceptions. As a result, one comes to know Hester well, while Katherine remains an enigma, seemingly straightforward in her behavior but perhaps hiding a deeply deceitful nature behind her guileless manner. From the beginning, Katherine seems astonishingly pliable and uncomplicated, calling her benefactress “Miss Harper, dear” and willingly participating in the quiet domestic routine that Hester has designated as their life together. Yet Katherine is a teenager and a girl reared in the unconventional atmosphere of an orphan’s home, where she must surely have been exposed to much that would fall outside the boundaries of her apparent innocence. Hester wonders periodically whether Katherine’s devotion to her is genuine, and the seeds of her mistrust will blossom in the wake of the accident. The novel remains ambiguous regarding Katherine’s true nature. Hester’s business manager, Mr. Bird, is clearly suspicious of the girl, but each piece of evidence that might weigh against her is clouded by other, seemingly simple explanations. So great is Hester’s need for Katherine’s companionship that she is...
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