Before Christmas, I was introduced to a lovely lady who is from my local area and she gifted me her book to read and review. It has been sat on my Kindle waiting patiently to be read (as well as the many others on my TBR list). I finally managed to get cracking, not least because our mutual friend Nichola implored me to get a move on because she had recently finished and needed to talk about it! So I did. The first word that sprung to mind when I finished it was “Wow”. I’m still reeling from this deeply psychological, beautifully written book but I hope I can make sense of my reaction in writing this review.
Rowan’s Well tells the story of Mark Strachan, who is emotionally scarred by a neglectful childhood but finds, firstly, a best friend in his university buddy William, and the love of his life, Eloise. However, following a series of events, the depths of Mark’s psychological damage is brought to light in the most tragic and traumatic way possible, leaving his extended family all but destroyed.
There is a sense of inevitable doom from the off, as Harter heads her chapters in terms of how long before/after the pinnacle event of the book (although it is quite a way into the book before this event occurs). The opening chapter is set in what seems to be some kind of institution/psychologist’s officers as Mark tells a story from his childhood with a very ominous ending. The omniscient narrator tells Mark’s story initially, but as the story develops and more key characters are introduced, Harter gives us snippets of the story from the eyes of one of the other principal characters. This is a brilliant tactic by Harter to keep the sympathies of the reader switching from character to character. Also the concentration of narrative from Mark’s point of view affords the reader conflicting emotions towards him, no matter what he does.
Throughout the novel, Harter enhances each scene with some beautiful imagery and gorgeously depicted scenes of the countryside and the coastline with a large dose of pathetic fallacy as the weather almost becomes another ominous character, poised to drive forward the imminent event that will change the lives irrevocably of this family. Harter uses every literary device available to her to make the reader unsure of what is going to happen but at the same time, certain that it is going to be a life-changing event (and not in a good way) when it comes.
For me, personally, and my fab friend Nichola, when it did come, I was absolutely floored. Nothing can prepare the reader for the course of this story. However, after the “event”, wild horses couldn’t have made me put the Kindle down! I was up way past my bedtime, knowing full well that I had at least a good hour’s reading time ahead of me, and I didn’t care! I needed to finish this book.
This book takes the road less travelled, looking at the actions and reactions of a family who have all the best intentions but who cannot account for the warped rationality of someone who has not had the loving, caring upbringing that they have had and does not understand love. The principal characters, in particular, Mark, William, Eloise and Olivia (Eloise’s twin and William’s wife) are all victims and the reader is shown this by the timeline to which Harter has written the story. The “event” itself is not overdramatised. Indeed, it is only when described by the other characters retrospectively and by Mark, in particular, that the reader is truly given an emotional recounting of the moment that effectively ruins the lives of all involved. One particular character’s description had me in tears.
Harter has written an astounding first novel. The clues are all there as she builds up to the pinnacle and the analysis of what this means for everyone involved in the final part of the book. It is so very difficult to review this book to make any potential readers understand how clever this book is without giving away any of it’s secrets but this is going to be another one of those books that I will be imploring all my friends to read.
I remember when I was at university and we studied Affinity by Sarah Waters. My tutor kept asking us where we were up to with reading it and said “I wish I was where you are up to with this book, before you know what happens, because you can’t un-know the secret.” That’s how I feel about this book. It genuinely is one of the cleverest books I’ve read in a long time in terms of how the reader is guided to consider the characters in a particular way without having their judgement completely clouded by an event that would, if printed as news, generate reactions of pure hatred towards the perpetrator of such events.
Of course, this is a work of fiction but the emotional rollercoaster that Harter takes you on and, more importantly, the way she writes about it, gives the reader a way, not to rationalise, but to sympathise with each and every character, no matter what the have done. The ending reminded me a little of the end of The Awakening by Kate Chopin in some ways (although that could just be me!) but it is a powerful ending which gives the reader some sense of closure in a way. This book will stay with me, and my friend Nichola, for a very long time and as Nichola said “moral of the story is cuddle your kids”. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree!
Rowan’s Well by CJ Harter Amazon.co.uk link (Click here to buy this book from Amazon)