Lily’s world comes crashing to the ground when her adult daughter Charlie is killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. All of a sudden the life she had built for herself in New Zealand is upended. A year later, she finds herself back in Eshwell Bridge, the tiny English town where she grew up in the 1950s. She plans to scatter Charlie’s ashes in the river Esh. But voices from her past are coming back to haunt her.
Back in 1955, Lily is sitting in the back row of Miss Thrace’s class with the other children who aren’t supposed to pass eleven-plus. Lily doesn’t know how she ended up here. She’s smart. And her family are poor, but they’re not badly off compared to the Harts. The Harts have too many children to count, their dad’s always in the pub, and the older ones are being shipped off to foster homes in the colonies. But Lily likes Israel Hart. He says that one day he will grow up to be a rock star. Along with him, we meet the stuck-up Francine, the talented and artistic Christine, and the bullying Dennis Worthington, the mayor’s son.
Lily’s childhood forms the backbone of this novel. The relationships of the children expose the social prejudices and privileges of their parents. When Lily, Francine and Christine choose to do their local history project on an old woman called Nancy who was accused of being a witch and drowned in her well, these prejudices are shown to be deeply rooted. Eshwell Bridge has a long history of people being suspicious of anybody different. Lily and the others become fascinated by Nancy’s garden, a place that is said to be cursed, and where nothing will grow but the old ash tree Nancy planted herself. Lily’s writing and Christine’s pictures win them a prize at school. But the past catches up to the present when Christine is found drowned in the same well.
Christine’s death is a mystery that grows more pressing as the story develops. When we see it through the eyes of ten-year-old Lily, it is a tragedy, the loss of one of her best friends. Re-evaluating Christine’s death as an adult, Lily begins to see how the circumstances don’t add up. As an adult, she pieces together Nancy’s story along with Christine’s. And she hopes for a chance encounter with her old friend Israel, who seems to have achieved his dream.
The prettily drawn cover with its wishing well and various flowers and foliage gives a fairytale ring to the title. But this is anything but a simple story. Not only do we hear from Lily as a child and an adult, there are chapters in Nancy’s voice, in Israel’s voice, and in the voices of Israel’s adoptive parents. Arnold’s ability to draw so many voices into the mix and still make this feel as though it is Lily’s story is the defining feature of this book. The themes of childhood bullying, prejudice, grudges, and the people we all grow up to be, are both universal and well developed. Lily’s mum and Auntie Jean always stop talking as soon as Lily comes into the room, because ‘bairns shouldn’t know these things’, but as the book progresses we learn of babies born out of wedlock, secret abortions, ghosts, and crimes which have been covered up.
I found myself gripped by Lily’s story, and also by Nancy’s and Christine’s. It is tempting to speculate that the author is drawing on some of her own childhood and schoolyard memories, so alive do the characters feel. While The ash, the well and the bluebell isn’t a fantasy, there is something enchanting about it that stays with you beyond the final pages. Part of it is Nancy’s garden, and the childhood sense that we are entering a secret world. As the reader, we are privileged to know more secrets than most of the characters in the story, who might never find out the truth of what happened to Christine all those years ago.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Submarine, Mākaro Press, RRP $30