The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell by Sandra Arnold (Mākaro Press, 2019), 332 pp., $35
Canterbury writer Sandra Arnold is an accomplished contributor to the literary life of Aotearoa New Zealand. Her published work includes flash fiction, short stories, memoir and novels. She was co-founder, with David Howard, of the literary magazine takahē. The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell is her third novel.
The prologue opens the story with a jolt that for New Zealand readers will feel immediate and recent. Lily is enjoying precious moments with her much-loved daughter, Charlie, before Charlie leaves for a new job in Australia. They’re in a café in the centre of Christchurch on 22 February 2011. The date at the head of the chapter warns us. The earthquake leaves Lily in hospital, mind reeling and unable to grasp the fact of Charlie’s death. Among the jumble of nightmare and memory are images of her childhood in the village of Eshwell Bridge in the north-east of England. Chapter One takes us there, to 1955, when Lily is a child.
Lily is in tears. Most in her class don’t want to be her friend because now she sits in the back row, the dunces’ row, placed there by the teacher Miss Thrace. Only Francine, Christine and Israel will have anything to do with her. Christine and Israel are also in the dunces’ row despite their intelligence: Israel because he belongs to a poor Catholic family and Christine because she’s the child of her mother’s wartime affair with a ‘black man’. Rigid prejudices abound. There is much about this struggling post-war community that is harsh beyond just the bleakness of the rubbled bomb sites. Arnold’s gift for richly detailed depictions of people and place makes the complex world of Eshwell Bridge throb with life.
Lily is a marvellous character. She’s soft-hearted, a bookworm and full of questions. And she persists with her questions despite the exasperation of her warm, controlling family who, except for her Nanna, take the hierarchies and judgements of their society as immutable facts of life. Lily’s kindness and her appreciation of kindness in others help her to value people differently. She loves Miss Laidlaw, the librarian who encourages and feeds her enquiring mind, in a way that Miss Thrace has no interest in doing. In the classroom, around the kitchen table, and in the village streets, the story makes real its concerns about ignorance, uncritical thinking, and the consequent pain of the outcast.
A school project about local history shifts these themes to a different place and time and uncovers a tale that continues to weave through the stories of Lily and her friends. Christine, Francine and Lily decide to research a story from 1676, when an elderly herbalist, Nancy Thickbroom, was blamed for the mysterious death of a number of cows. Some of the villagers blamed her for other calamities, accused her of witchcraft, dragged her from her house and drowned her in her own well. The surnames of some of the killers and victims are those of friends and neighbours of the children. Arnold has a deft touch as she brings past and present together, shows that the past is an intimate part of the present, not only in the unfolding and refolding of the lives of the characters, but in the wider society.
The exploration of the complex relationship between then and now shapes the structure of the novel. The telling switches back and forth between centuries, between decades, as Lily, the child, probes to find what is behind the silences and forbidden topics among the grownups. She then returns as an adult herself, revisits the mysteries and dark places of her childhood, drawing on the memories of others, who are more willing to speak now that attitudes have become more open. On one visit home, she has her first frank conversations with her brother Lawrence. He talks about his early years and the need to hide his homosexuality. Lily had not suspected the pain and fear that lay behind his façade of reserve. But the question that disturbs Lily the most, and the question that is central to the plot is: how and why did Christine die? After the children had finished their school project, Christine drowned in Nancy Thickbroom’s well. How that happened and who was there is a topic strictly avoided by every adult at the time. They attempt to expunge it from memory and from reality. But Lily can’t let it go.
In the meantime, the children develop adult lives that take them in different directions. Israel becomes part of a scheme that takes disadvantaged children and places them in homes in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He’s taken in by good people in the Marlborough Sounds who foster his musical talents to the degree that he develops a lucrative career in singing. He wants money for only one reason: to lift his parents and siblings out of their misery of deprivation. When first he arrives in Weka Bay, he’s an outcast yet again. His accent is wrong – ‘stinking Pom’. But he has the love and support of his new family, and also the knowledge of the on-going love of his own family back home.
Idealistic Lily, to the bewilderment of her family, leaves home to work in an Israeli kibbutz. Here, she meets Seb, a young New Zealander, whose ideals are similar to hers. I found this the weakest part of the story. Lily and Seb talk about the justice and equality of the Israeli way of life, and the other young people compare what they find there with their home countries. Some of them are from European Jewish families who suffered during the Second World War, and Lily’s passion for a better world grows. But the complexities and contradictions of this new society are barely mentioned and the reader doesn’t get to share Lily’s experience of Israel beyond the hardworking and hard-partying group of transient young ex-pats. The kibbutz doesn’t become a real place, unlike the intensely real Eshwell Bridge, or the New Zealand communities that become parts of Lily’s and Israel’s lives.
When Lily travels to New Zealand to meet Seb’s affluent family, she again encounters class prejudice, and the rejection of anyone different. She too is labelled ‘Pom’. From a neighbour she learns that below the family’s glossy self-assurance are stories that can’t be spoken. More shameful secrets. A wedding, the birth of Charlie, and Lily takes the child back to visit her own family. There she receives news of tragedy. Sandra Arnold has a wonderful sense of pacing and drama, so that the news is wrenching for the reader as well as for Lily.
It feels exactly right that after the February Christchurch earthquake and Charlie’s death, Lily goes back to Eshwell Bridge. She feels the pull of her origins, to the place where her bonds with history and people are too powerful to resist. For similar reasons, Israel has also returned, rich and famous, but anxious to renew their childhood friendship and lay old ghosts to rest. They share their feelings and knowledge about the details of Christine’s death, and the questions around this are finally answered. This resolution is well done. The answers are shocking but the completion is satisfying and there’s warmth and tranquillity in the way the story ends on the banks of the river Esh.
Beautiful descriptions of the natural world contribute to this. Throughout the book Arnold’s gift for selecting significant detail, whether of a person, or a place, ensure reader sympathy and involvement. Her people and places are multi-layered, with the frequent implication that there is always more below the surface. Some villagers see ghosts near where Nancy lived and met her end. Israel perceives colour as sound, as music, and is told that famous composers also experienced synaesthesia. Nancy’s skill with herbs is entwined with the ancient beliefs of folklore. These are the story elements suggested by the title and Sandra Arnold includes them with the judicious touch of one sprinkling herbs. The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell is a rich tale, in love with a world that’s often cruel and capricious, but where hurt can be mitigated by kindness and by a questioning attentiveness leading to wonder.
CAROLYN MCCURDIE is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. Her poetry collection Bones in the Octagon was published by Makaro Press in 2015.