Book Review: The Witch in the Well by Camilla Bruce
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
The Witch in the Well by Camilla Bruce
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (October 4, 2022)
Length: 304 pages
Author Information: Website | Twitter
In a small town in the Norwegian countryside, childhood friends Elena and Cathy grew close to each other over many summers of vacationing there. Now adults, the two have become bitter rivals after discovering that both have decided to start a writing project about the same topic: Isbeth Clark.
A local woman who had been denounced as a witch back in the nineteenth century, Isbeth was drowned in a well by a mob of angry townsfolk who believed her responsible for the disappearance of several children. Stories of her have since become entrenched in the history of the town as well as many local legends. In the present day, having returned from the city to get her family’s estate ready for sale, Elena is reminded of her bucolic summers spent here in her youth and is suddenly struck with an inspiration to write a tribute to Ilsbeth’s spirit. A bestselling author of a spiritual self-help book, Elena also hopes to use her reach as a social media influencer to spread the word about the infamous witch in the well.
This does not sit well at all with Cathy, who has remained in town after all these years and earned herself a bit of a reputation as the local kook. Obsessed with the subject of Ilsbeth Clark, Cathy has dedicated years of her life researching the woman’s life for a novel about her, and now feels anger towards Elena for encroaching upon what she perceives is her area of expertise. The story is told in the epistolary style, opening with a news report on a tragic death followed by excerpts from Elena’s journal, entries on Cathy’s blog, notes purported written by Ilsbeth herself, as well as other documentation.
After writing out the book’s description, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities to another one of Camilla Bruce’s novels, You Let Me In. There’s first the blending of horror and paranormal elements with smalltown history and folklore. Then there’s the aspect of the unreliable narrator. And finally, thanks to the vagueness created by the combination of all these ingredients, the result is an eerie uncertainty of what is real and what is imagined.
The author also seems to have a penchant for characters who are writers. But while both Cathy and Elena in The Witch in the Well are hoping to write about Ilsbeth Clark, their visions for their respective works couldn’t be any more different. And much of it has to do with the differences between the two women themselves. Cathy has always been the quiet, somber, and introverted one who struggles socially with expressing how she feels. Elena is the opposite, making friends easily with her bubbly and bright personality.
Due to the structure of the novel, these character differences became an invaluable way to tell their voices apart. However, here’s where I think Bruce’s writing falters a bit; the story is supposed to be told through the characters’ own writings such as journal entries, notes, etc. but in fact the writing style varies very little. Sure, we had personality quirks come through that were used to tell the voices apart, but in general these were rather shallow affectations.
The Witch in the Well also had the feel of a “here’s what happened” story where the major crux was revealed right from the start, leaving the rest of the novel to go back and fill in the details. Without spoiling anything, I will say that in a way we already know the fates of our characters very early on so there’s no big shock, especially with a big reveal of what happened to one of them right off the bat. As a plot device, I wasn’t exactly turned off by it, though I can’t say it did the story any favors either. It simply left the rest of it with little wind in its sails to carry the mystery or intrigue all the way through.
That’s pretty much how I feel about the book overall—smooth sailing but generally an uneventful ride. Not bad at all, though after my stellar experience with the Camilla Bruce’s two previous novels, You Let Me In and In the Garden of Spite, it’s hard not to see The Witch in the Well as a slight downgrade. Still a good book and a worthy pick if you are a fan of the author, but if you are just starting out with her work I would recommend starting elsewhere, like with either of the aforementioned novels which are much more impressive in terms of storytelling, atmosphere, character development.
Well good but not that good, or so it seams
Knowing beforehand what the characters’ fate will be always robs me of some of the pleasure of discovery, like learning fromt the very start who the killer is in a crime story….
It’s a little disappointing that you didn’t love this, but her previous two books were so good I’m actually not surprised in a way. I’m anxious to fit this in soon.
A story that broadcasts the ending up front and then fills in the gaps as we go has to have something really special in between to keep us engaged. I’m thinking something like Apollo 13. We know the ending but the getting there still draws us in. But that can be a difficult thing to do.
I don’t like to know right from the start what will happen and then go back. Well, with few exceptions.
ahh, that’s a shame. I loved her first two books too.
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Sounds like it was decent but was just missing the oomph to make it exciting. Still looking forward to trying it.