Friday, 13 November 2009

The Well and the Mine

"After she the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash."

Earlier in the week I teased you with the above opening lines to The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. It's an opener that immediately catches your attention and Virago have marketed the book well by quoting those two effective lines on the front cover. Without knowing anything about the book, you're not sure what those two lines mean but you know it can't be good; you may even guess that the splash comes from the well referred to in the novel's title and you would be correct in your surmise. The Well and the Mine is about the closely-knitted Moore family in a small coal-mining town, Carbon Hill, in Alabama. The novel opens with a unknown woman throwing a baby into the Moore family's well whilst Tess, nine-year-old middle child, watches on from the back porch.

A shocking act of seeming barbarity is the impetus given to propel a novel about everyday family life and struggle in the Depression-era South into a novel that challenges the characters' perspectives and commonly-held beliefs. The Well and the Mine is an authentic evocation of the rural South that rivals the best-loved of Southern literature. Although driven by the opening event as the family come to terms with the tragedy, each in their own way, the novel is equally about their way of life as it is about the mystery of the woman at the well; it is a story about family and being compelled to think differently when confronted with an act of unfathomable inhumanity. Being set in the American South, the novel also predictably tackles themes of race and endemic racism in a way that, although unoriginal, was challenging to the characters and, in my opinion, beautifully done. The Well and the Mine is gently told despite the horrific opener and I enjoyed its period detail and focus on the cruelty and danger of the coal-mines. There are also some wonderfully crafted lines of prose with intelligent and imaginative insights that immersed me in the story; I enjoyed the conversational style of the writing as much as the illumination it provided.

Structured through alternating passages told from the perspective of each of the five members of the Moore family, insight is given into the different compartmentalised areas of family life. The narrative didn't always work for me as I found some characters better characterised than others and found that one narrative strand did not fit (the character's perspective is given from the future so their reminiscences are outwith the time period of everyone else and when something happens to that character you know they are going to survive). However, I particularly enjoyed seeing events through the eyes of Tess, a child, and her older sister, Virgie, who is on the cusp of womanhood; I also thought that some of the passages from the point-of-view of their father, Albert, were the most beautiful, juxtaposed against the backdrop of an uncompromising life in the mine. Phillips is economical in her use of emotionally-charged scenes; the opening scene is intense enough to resonate throughout the novel with subtler, tender moments of realisation. instead. This is a novel very much about the best and worst of human nature and of people doing their best in harsh times.

The Well and the Mine is a well-written and engaging debut novel that, at first, struggled to be published; publisher after publisher in the U.S. rejected the manuscript until small-press, Hawthorne (in Oregon), published it. Gin Phillips has since won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, with Penguin US subsequently picking up the paperback rights and Virago printing it here in the UK. I predict hearing more about this novel, potentially when next year's Orange Prize for Fiction longlist goes to press.

Favourite passages:

My mama died when I was four, and I remember her laying there with blood soaking the sheets and the sweat not even dried off her face. I saw the baby she'd had die two days later, its face blue and its body shrunk like a dried peach. I've seen men carried home from the mines with eyes torn out and arms just about ripped clean off still hanging by pieces of skin. None of it stuck in my head like that little swollen thing that used to be a baby hanging over the side of our water bucket.

But you work shoulder to shoulder with a man, push his cars with him, he pushes yours, that changes how you look at things. A few years back, five men were burned to cinders in a gas explosion, and when the bodies got brought out, they was all black as coal. There'd be a Negro woman and a white woman staring at the same body. When your wives stand next to each other trying to sort out if one of those charred logs is their husband, that means something.

I was not happy with that baby for turning me inside out, and I wasn't really inclined to help him out none. It seemed like he might be nicer to me - maybe give me dreams of soda crackers and peanut butter and lemonade - if he wanted me to comfort him. But then again, maybe if we gave him a name and a mama and a house and a life, maybe he would let go of our well. And then it would be mine again.

Little, Brown (of which Virago is an imprint) approached me a few months ago about reviewing The Well and the Mine and sent me a proof copy and updated it this week with the published edition (released November 5th); I am so very glad that they did.


Jodie said...

Oh man I thought this was going to be set in Wales, but ok I can get behind books about coal mining set in America. I will be so impressed with your powers if this turns out to be on the Orange list next year (I'm running a theory that books with certain kinds of covers do well for Orange list inclusion and this one would fit right in).

Anonymous said...

The cover is so different from the US cover, which has a young girl standing on a porch. I'm trying to remember if a spoon had any significance to the story.

This story really came to life for me...I can still picture the house in my mind.

Megan said...

This is the book I've talked up more than any I've read this year. I can hardly believe that it had such a hard time finding a publisher.

*cue shameless gushing* I loved the characters, and the story, and the prose, and the message, and it just all worked so well together for me, and, yeah, I just loved it. *okay, the part with the shameless gushing is over*

I do hope you're right about the Orange Prize list. I'd love to see it on there!

Yeah, I'm with softdrink with regard to wondering about the significance of the spoon. My copy has the girl the porch, and it seems pretty relevant and makes me love the book even more, but it also doesn't have those arresting 2 first sentences on the front either, which is a great hook...hmmm.

The Literary Stew said...

This sounds so interesting! I definitely want to get it. Thanks for reviewing it. I don't think I would have heard about it otherwise.

Paperback Reader said...

Jodie, ha - it's weird how a book can give us pre-conceived ideas! I'm interested about your theory on books covers and the Orange Prize - why would the photograph of a spoon stand it in good stead?

Jill, the US cover is actually the same as the cover I have for The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty and my post on that actually mentions how misleading the cover is whereas it is perfect for this book! Funnily enough, Virago publish both. There wasn't any significance with the spoon but there was a lot of talk of food and the importance of sharing food both as a family and with other people (their poorer neighbours and inviting Jonah to dinner); I think the symbolism of food -and hence the spoon on the cover- works very well.

It was a vivid story and one that will resonate with me for a while.

Megan, I love your enthusiasm! It is a great book. What do you think of my theory about the spoon and what it represents? I think it looks as if it is on the kitchen table they sat at.

Those two lines make an amazing hook and definitely reel you in - I hooked people with my teaser on Tuesday!

Mrs. B, You're welcome! I'm surprised there hasn't been more talk of the book; although it was only released in the UK last week, it has been available Stateside since April of this year.

Anonymous said...

Oh this sounds wonderful I was interested from the tease that you did on Tuesday but now I definately want to give it a whirl. Have added it to my Christmas list (see not running out and buying things crazily anymore) now.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, good for you! That is the advantage of Christmas coming up; there are a few titles that have caught my eye but I'm holding out, hoping Santa brings them (you have to think feasibly when presented with a potential purchase if you are actually going to read it before then or not). This was a wonderfully surprising book and I'm glad to have come across it.

Jenny said...

For a Southern girl I am really not at all a fan of Southern literature - but that is a fantastic first line, and I really like the excerpts you've posted. Thanks for the review! :)

Paperback Reader said...

Jenny, if you like the writing then perhaps you'll give it a try. I'd be interested to read what you thought as a Southern girl reading it. I tend not to read too much literature from the city I'm from, sensitive to portrayal.

verity said...

Am so glad that you finally got to read this - weren't we lucky? As you say, I think it is unlikely that I would have come across it otherwise. I will be interested to see if Phillips comes up with another book.

Anonymous said...

Enticing review and this is the first I have heard of this one.

Paperback Reader said...

We were definitely lucky Verity and it was a wonderful unsolicited review copy to accept.

I think Phillips will write another book although this one was autobiographical like - her family lived in Carbon Hill, her great-grandfather worked in the mines and her grandmother (I think) lived in the family home, where Phillips stayed whilst writing and sat on the porch.

Paperback Reader said...

Book pusher, there hasn't been much talk of it yet but I am glad that it has enticed you!

farmlanebooks said...

I love the sound of this book and I've been looking out for it ever since I saw Verity's review. I'm so pleased to you enjoyed it too.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, it was only released on November 5th so hope you come across a copy soon!