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The Well of St Nobody by Neil Jordan: The vague whiff of ineptitude is surprising and strangely endearing

Don’t expect to be wowed by this novel set in west Cork, but if you’re looking for a little sentimental indulgence, look no further

Neil Jordan has produced a feel-good novel, clearly written during the pandemic by a famous man staring out at the Atlantic off west Cork. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Well of Saint Nobody
The Well of Saint Nobody
Author: Neil Jordan
ISBN-13: 9781804549810
Publisher: Apollo
Guideline Price: £20

We read books by famous people differently. This isn’t some great admission of bias: who would care about the “truth” of a self-pitying second-born son were he not famous? It also explains why celebrities often get away with writing such hideously average books. (Especially children’s books – don’t buy these, parents, please, it’s a death knell for those talented individuals for whom children’s literature is an actual calling rather than a side hustle.)

Of course, for Neil Jordan, writing isn’t a side hustle but a serious part of his oeuvre, something he’s been doing for years and for which he has won numerous, prestigious prizes (among them a Somerset Maugham Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize). Which makes the vague whiff of ineptitude off his latest novel both surprising and, somehow, strangely endearing. I don’t know how he managed this, unless it’s my bias coming into play.

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Both the character formulation and the premise of The Well of Saint Nobody are distinctly staid; an older ex-virtuoso pianist with damaged hands retires to west Cork and unwittingly hires as his cleaner a woman he has met before. She recognises him immediately but doesn’t let on. So far, so romantic – get that box of chocolates ready! (Interestingly, last time I checked, a whole wall of the small library in Castletownbere was dedicated to Mills & Boon, making me wonder if perhaps the decision to write a locally set romance was a canny one.) Halfway through, however, there’s a sinister plot twist (the injection, I suppose, of complexity that would stop this book being shelved too near that wall) that’s quickly and unconvincingly resolved.

Being set in west Cork, we’re also treated not only to the eponymous magical well but to numerous evocative descriptions of the sea, the rain, the friendly locals and the verdant surroundings.

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This, then, is a feel-good novel, clearly written during the pandemic by a famous man staring out at the Atlantic off west Cork. But perhaps this is where my bias really does come into play, because I adore west Cork, thus making anything that takes me there, however vicariously, completely enrapturing. Don’t expect to be wowed, but if you’re looking for a little sentimental indulgence, well, as I said – chocolates at the ready.