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The Well (1986)

by Elizabeth Jolley

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3371076,916 (3.29)33
Miss Hester Harper, middle-aged and eccentric, brings Katherine into her emotionally impoverished life. Together they sew, cook gourmet dishes for two, run the farm, make music and throw dirty dishes down the well. One night, driving along the deserted track that leads to the farm, they run into a mysterious creature. They heave the body from the roo bar and dump it into the farm's deep well. But the voice of the injured intruder will not be stilled and, most disturbing of all, the closer Katherine is drawn to the edge of the well, the farther away she gets from Hester. A twentieth-century Australian classic, The Wellis a haunting and wryly humorous tale of memory, desire and loneliness.… (more)
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» See also 33 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought. ( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought. ( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought. ( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
I picked up this paperback of The Well, solely because Jolley is my better half’s maiden name. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Elizabeth Jolley is an interesting person. She was born in England in 1923 into a strict German-speaking family and attended a Quaker boarding school. She became a nurse, married, and after having three children, they moved to Australia when she was 36. She wrote all her life, but it was not until she was in her 50s, did she gain widespread recognition. She wrote 15 novels, along with six plays, and several works of non-fiction. Elizabeth died in Australia in 2007.

A copy of one of her collections of short stories is in my library, but I read it so many years ago, I can barely remember any of them. Her novel, The Well, won her the prestigious Miles Franklin award. The novel is a humorous look at “memory, desire and loneliness,” according to the publisher’s note on the back cover.

Miss Hester Harper is a wealthy, lonely woman, who, on a shopping trip to town, brings home an orphan, Katherine, and the two become close friends. The tone of the novel is interesting from the first paragraph. Jolley writes, “One night Miss Hester Harper and Katherine are driving home from a celebration, a party at the hotel in town, to which Miss Harper has been an unwilling guest. Katherine had wanted very much to go to the party. She is under the spell of a succession of film stars, the present one being John Travolta. She tries to walk exactly as he walks. Having seen every one of his films several times she is able to imagine herself, when dancing, as his chosen perpetual partner. Miss Harper, unable to refuse Katherine Anything, has endured a long evening bearing at least two insults, one of these, because of the Peter Pan collar, laden with disturbing implication” (1). When they leave the party, Katherine, a week before her driving test, insists on driving. Hester is nervous, but she allows her to drive. While careening down a narrow, winding road, Hester begs her to slow down, and then she hits something in the road. The pair manages to drag the body to their isolated cottage, and dump it into an abandoned well.

Mr. Bird manages the farm for Hester, and he urges her to be more careful with her inheritance, but Katherine convinces her to go on one shopping spree after another. Hester keeps a huge portion of her money hidden in a sock drawer, much to Mr. Bird’s dismay. When they return from the well, she finds her house ransacked and the money gone.

The story takes a suspenseful and morbid turn as Katherine believes she is talking to the man at the bottom of the well. Hester never hears the man’s voice. Katherine is convinced he is her prince charming, come to take her away to a castle where she will live happily ever after. A reader can see many possible outcomes of this tale which bounces from suspense to humor, to the edge of pathos. Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, The Well, reminds me of Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a generous scoop of humor. I do not know anything about any of her other novels, but I am going to delve into some soon. 5 stars.

--Jim, 5/28/16 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | May 30, 2016 |
Elizabeth Jolley (1923 - 2007) was an Australian writer. Born in Birmingham, she settled in Australia in the late 1950s. What Jolley has in common with Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000), is that both female authors started publishing at a relatively high age, in their early 50s. Although Elizabeth Jolley had written short stories in her twenties, her first book was published in 1976, when she was 53 years old. Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel in 1977, at the age of 60.

The well, published in 1986, is a spooky novel. In atmosphere, it bears some resemblance to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), who was born in the same year as Fitzgerald, their age difference being only nine years.

The plot of The well is fairly easy to summarize, and it is no spoiler to describe the car accident that forms the basis for the story. In fact, the narrative structure of the novel almost foregrounds this event in a cinematographic way, i.e. just like a "spoiler". The novel opens with a description of the accident, and this fragment is later repeated. After the opening, the novel tracks back to the days before the accident.

Although the novel was written in the 1980s, and the presence of various clues also suggest that the story is set at that time, nonetheless, the story has a somewhat antiquated feel to it, possibly as a result of the rural setting in Australia. Hester is a middle-aged woman, who takes care of Katherine, who is a teenager. Hester has adopted Katherine, who is an orphan. Katherine has asked Hester to teach her how to drive, so that she can take the car and attend parties in the nearby town by herself. At the moment of the accident, the inexperienced Katherine was driving.

Hester's farm is located somewhat remotely, and can only be reached by taking a turn from the road, over a dirt road. On this dark road, the car hits something heavy, caught up on the roo bar. Only Hester gets out of the car, telling Katherine to drive slowly to the well. There, they drop the thing into the well.

It is never revealed what the car hit, but the strong suggestion is that they hit and killed a man. this suggestion is strengthened as they discover that money is missing, and a burglar, who has mysteriously disappeared is reported in the area. There are various complications, as Hester considers descending into the well, to retrieve the money, and possible gain of wealth in finding other spoils. (Literally) covering up the affair is not much of an option, because Hester has just sold the farm off.

Whatever happened is only known to Hester, but not made explicit. The event and the well subsequently drive Katherine mad with terror, a horror which seems beyond what could reasonably expected, perhaps because Hester has threatened her.

The novel develops various interesting psychological aspects. Clearly, part of the terror arises from the fear of what could have happened if the two women had been confronted by the male "intruder", a threat which is still perceived as they doubt whether or not the man died, or his ghost terrorizes them from the well. (Financial) dependence is an important motive in the novel, where the intruder alternatively stands for ruin and for profitable gain. There is an odd incongruency between the relation between the two women, both in age and gender roles, as they try to cope with the situation as it arises, and subsequently morphs. The horror of the novel goes far beyond the suggestion that the well acts as their subconscious.

Excellent reading. ( )
2 vote edwinbcn | Feb 20, 2016 |
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Epigraph
'What have you brought me Hester? What have you brought me from the shop?'

'I've brought Katherine, Father,' Miss Harper said. 'I've brought Katherine, but she's for me.'
Dedication
For Leonard Jolley
First words
One night Miss Hester Harper and Katherine are driving home from a celebration, a party at the hotel in town, to which Miss Harper has been an unwilling guest.
Quotations
Looking across at him Hester could not help thinking of the fleshy shoulders of the mating bulls. Mr Borden gave the impression of setting about the male task of servicing frequently and thoroughly with a view to enriching his property with a number of sons.
It had always been her way to be aloof and withdrawn so that she, in a position of authority with a good head for crops and wool, was beyond gossip and criticism. She had with two words, she knew, made herself available for unlimited speculation.
People, Hester thought, who go to Church always want other people to go too. Vegetarians often tried to convert meat eaters. She supposed it was the same with marriage and childbirth. Women caught tried to ensure that others were similarly trapped.
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Miss Hester Harper, middle-aged and eccentric, brings Katherine into her emotionally impoverished life. Together they sew, cook gourmet dishes for two, run the farm, make music and throw dirty dishes down the well. One night, driving along the deserted track that leads to the farm, they run into a mysterious creature. They heave the body from the roo bar and dump it into the farm's deep well. But the voice of the injured intruder will not be stilled and, most disturbing of all, the closer Katherine is drawn to the edge of the well, the farther away she gets from Hester. A twentieth-century Australian classic, The Wellis a haunting and wryly humorous tale of memory, desire and loneliness.

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