Review: “The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley

Novel: The Well by Australian Author Elizabeth Jolley

I came to this novel with eager anticipation. I had read some short biographical articles about the life and work of Elizabeth Jolley and seem to recall seeing her interviewed on television some years ago. I knew of her reputation as a writer and the long period of apprenticeship she served before being regularly published and acknowledged as a skilful writer. Getting recognition so late in life gives some of us writers renewed hope! I can only ever recall reading a few of her short stories before attempting this novel.

I read this novel in just a few sittings over three days. Despite the fog in my brain, the coughing, wheezing, sneezing and other nasty symptoms not worthy of mention here, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The exciting first chapter gives us the mystery on which the whole story unfolds. I found it an interesting technique to have this chapter first, followed by the background story leading up to that fatal moment when Katherine hits the man on the track with the ute. Including the accident in just the first few pages hooks the reader into reading on to discover what happened next. Mind you, it takes the entire novel to find out, but that is clever writing.

I found that the brooding mood of the first half of the novel totally compelling reading. It was like observing two lives thoroughly absorbed in one another. I could almost not imagine Hester and Katherine without each other. They each depend heavily on the other for support. Each of them would hardly exist without the other. Into this almost blissful, isolated and protected environment, Jolley introduces three wedges, each of which, in turn, destroys the almost symbiotic relationship between the two main characters.

The first is Hester’s friendship with Hilde when she was much younger. This overshadows her relationship with Katherine, always bringing comparisons between them. I had the impression that Hester couldn’t decide which she loved the most.

The second wedge occurs when Katherine receives a letter from her former school friend Joanna. This friendship brings a new threat to Hester who fears that it will come between her and Katherine. She fears the influence of Joanna on Katherine. She desperately clings to Katherine, all the time fearing that she will one day marry and leave Hester.

This threat is further accentuated by the man killed in the accident on the track. They bundle him into the well, but then Katherine imagines he is talking to her, promising to marry her when she gets him out of the well. This is the third wedge driven between them. Hester’s closeted and cosseted existence was threatened by his appearance. It matters not whether he was dead or alive; his appearance had stirred feelings within Katherine that threatened Hester.

In the latter half of the story both main characters slide into a desperate and dark world of confusion, change, threats and accusations. Jolley skilfully destroys the safe world of the first half of the story and each of the characters begins a downward spiral fed almost entirely by their imaginations.


Jolley, Elizabeth, 2007, The Well. Penguin, Camberwell.


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