Review: “The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley [1986]

The Well is a spine-tingling and deliciously sinister story in a non-traditional way. Set in the vast dry and dusty Australian countryside, the novel explores the relationship between the elderly Hester Harper and her young ward and companion Katherine, an orphan Hester has unofficially adopted one day.

“What have you brought me then?” …

“I’ve brought Katherine, father,” Miss Harper said … “But she’s for me.” – p. 10

For the lonely and isolated Hester, who also struggles with a lame leg, Katherine is the only companion or friend Hester has had in a long while. Having been alone with her father for most of her life on the desolated farm, with the exception of the family’s accountant, Mr Bird, and Hester’s one time governess, Hilde Herzfeld, Hester craves companionship.

From the beginning, there is an instant connection between Hester and Katherine and the bond only strengthens after Hester’s father dies. Now a free and relatively wealthy woman, Hester spoils Katherine and satisfies her every whim. Their lives descend into a slight hedonistic haze, giving themselves decadent and wasteful banquets every night,  going on shopping sprees and getting into the habit of drinking champagne with their cornflakes at breakfast. Katherine is flushed with life and Hester, never given the opportunity to quite live, is living through Katherine. Because of this, and somewhat due to her upbringing, Hester becomes quite possessive of Katherine. She holds contempt against Katherine’s only other friend who she writes to constantly, but not without Hester reading each and every letter first, and the two women eventually become extremely isolated when the main house is leased, and they to a small out-of-way cottage with a dried up well.

It is while Katherine, still learning, is driving recklessly the two women back home from a party on the dark and usually deserted road, that she hits something. When they decide to dump the creature into the unused well, it is when all their troubles begin and the relationship between Hester and Katherine begins to unravel when Katherine starts hearing a voice coming from the well.

This was a thrilling read and, while it is spine-tingling and sinister, it is unlike other any other thrillers. The Well focuses more on the psychological aspects of the sinister, of the emotionally deprived Hester and the somewhat blank and unformed Katherine. Their relationship bordered somewhat onto the homoerotic and as Jolley dangled them along the ledge, I was constantly reminded of another female relationship in a subsequent novel, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (which of course came after Jolley’s).

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9 comments

    1. Ah, I remember the car accident in The Great Gatsby but I still have trouble with that book. Nothing says decadence more than having champagne with cornflakes!

  1. Great review. I read this as a teenager, but can’t really remember much about it. I have since bought the orange penguin version (on my trip to Melbourne at xmas) and hope to read it again very soonish.

    1. Thanks. Words can’t express how much I love those orange Penguins. It’s such an excellent promotion and allows old, forgotten books to be re-published.

  2. Have just discovered your blog Mae. Nice review. If you are interested in checking mine out, you’ll see that some months ago I did a favourite authors post on Jolley. I like her a lot.

    1. Thanks Sue. I’ve been lurking at your blog for awhile now. 🙂 I think I’ve made some comments now and then. I’m hunting down some more Jolley but she’s surprisingly hard to find in libraries which is a shame.

      1. That’s pretty terrible if she isn’t in libraries. I have many of her books but there are a couple of good second hand shops in Canberra where I often go if I want to find a Jolley (which I sometimes do for Internet bookgroup swaps). Thanks for commenting on my blog – do delurk more often!

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