The Holy Well, by Colin Macpherson. Mopoke Publishing, 2007, $37.95.
Bren is born somewhere in the eastern Highlands of Scotland, in the late Bronze Age, about 3000 years ago, beside a loch. He is the son of the local chief, and is destined to succeed his father. James is born to ordinary parents in a working-class suburb of Melbourne in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Colin Macpherson’s novel follows each of them through boyhood to maturity, in alternating chapters. So we see Bren at eleven, being groomed for leadership, already taking an integral part in the life of his clan, discovering an affection for girls for the first time; then we see James, isolated in the modern way, except for his family and the friends he is able to make, also discovering girls.
At sixteen each is touched by death: Bren when a companion is killed by a bear during a hunt; James when his neighbour and friend Cheryl dies in a car crash. Bren is guided in his clan’s traditions and religion by his father; James makes his way to church out of an interest in the girls he can meet there, then finds spiritual stimulation in the questions posed by the leader of the youth group, though he later rejects the church.
Bren’s life is mostly conducted in public. There is little room for individuality, except as it behoves a leader to take initiatives that benefit his clan, but this constraint is balanced by the mutual support among the clan members without which life would be imperilled. For James, in contrast, all is individuality and choice.
In Bren’s society, an intelligent, sympathetic man like Bren, even if he were not born to leadership, would always rise to a position of leadership, because his qualities would demand to be recognised and used to their fullest for the benefit of the clan. In James’s society, in contrast, his combination of intelligence and sympathy is not valued except at a personal level.
Bren discovers the holy well of Endachni by chance. The well is a tiny pool fed by a spring on the slopes of a mountain, so out of the way of the normal life of the clan that its location had been forgotten, despite its reputation in the clan’s folklore as a holy place with healing powers. Even in Bren’s time it is something ancient: people from the distant forgotten past have laid white stones around its bank.
James finds the well, in much the same state, 3000 years later. While staying in the area, he reads an old book of local history, and goes in search of the legendary “Holy Well of Endackney”.
But if it has healing powers, why has the well been forgotten? Would it not be central to the everyday life of the clan and the subsequent inhabitants of the area? This is the key to the whole story. The well’s power is not freely available. Only those who come to it as fully-rounded, receptive people, the sort of people who can become enchanted by a place and feel completely at home there, are able to use the powers, but then again only to help people who also have a similar capacity for enchantment by a place.
The holy properties of the well appear to derive more from within its adherents than from the well itself. The well is the catalyst that completes the integration of its adherents into wholeness, which is why, humans being what they are, few have been able to benefit from it down the millennia, and from time to time the little pool surrounded by white stones recedes into the woods.
It might all sound rather New Age, but Macpherson’s novel is more intelligent and disciplined than that. The two men’s stories are vividly told, which is especially meritorious given that little is known about the people who lived in Scotland 3000 years ago. Bren’s clan is threatened by belligerent invaders from the north, and also has to deal with the arrival of the more rational Celts, who bring their Iron Age technology along with some dubious religious practices.
Modern printing technology allows novelists like Macpherson, who have stories to tell but can’t promise publishers best-sellers on the one hand or literary prizes on the other, to publish themselves. It doesn’t guarantee them wide distribution or an extensive readership, however, which in the case of a well-crafted, thoughtful novel like this one, would be a pity.
George Thomas is deputy editor of Quadrant.