Ever read a book you love so much it takes you forever to write a review for it? A book so amazing that you realize whatever you can write just won’t give it justice. That’s how I felt after reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, and that’s why it took me weeks to figure out what to write about Benjamin Wood’s amazing debut novel The Bellwether Revivals.
Publisher McClelland and Stewart calls the book “part Brideshead Revisited” — how could I resist? The parallels to Brideshead are clear — nursing home care worker Oscar Lowe is drawn to the Bellwethers, a wealthy family of academics. He falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a Cambridge student, and befriends her brother Eden and their group of friends. Cambridge in fact becomes almost a character itself in this novel — characters speak of it so lovingly, so knowledgeably, that it almost takes on the mystique of Brideshead. Like Oscar, we are attracted to this world where we don’t need to worry about putting food on the table; rather, we can spend hours debating philosophy and discussing literature. The novel is set in the early 2000s, but something about the way Wood writes makes the story feel like it was set in the past. Perhaps this insulated world Oscar inhabits with Iris, Eden and their friends insulates us as well, provides us as much of an escape as it does Oscar.
With the Brideshead comparison, I was expecting the book to be mostly about Oscar’s relationship with the Bellwethers, but the story takes a much darker turn. The very first chapter, “Prelude,” does give us an idea of the tragic outcome at the end — Eden Bellwether is “still breathing, but faintly,” there are other bodies around, and Oscar says, “It’s over now…We can’t go back and change it.” What happened? We don’t know, but we know the story won’t end well. I agree with this blog review that revealing the end in advance allows us to then focus on the nuances within the events. From a lovely tale of romance and privilege, we are introduced into a chilling story of psychopathy.
Much of Bellwether Revivals focuses on music, something hinted at by the prologue being called a “prelude.” When we are introduced to the Bellwethers, it’s because Oscar is drawn to a church where Eden is playing the organ. I love Wood’s description: “There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer.” I imagine thready, tentative notes, and almost ethereal melody with the power to cast spells.
Eden is a gifted musician, but more than that, he believes music has the power to heal. Literally. Many acknowledge the power of music to bring comfort and influence emotions, but Eden, influenced by the ideas of Johann Mattheson, believes music can actually, physically affect behaviour. He says Oscar entered the church not just because of a generic attraction to Eden’s music, but because the music was specifically designed to get someone to enter a church and sit down. It’s a disturbing notion, one we could easily dismiss as utter nonsense, yet it also offers an intriguing possibility of hope. What if music can do more than just comfort those with terminal illnesses? What if music can actually remove tumours, reverse Alzheimer’s? What if music can, literally, heal? Eden firmly believes it can, and that he can create such music.
Iris believes her brother is a narcissist, as in actually has a psychological disorder and isn’t just being arrogant, and she turns to Oscar for help. To be honest, I thought her insistence on her brother’s psychopathy was a bit odd — it seemed a harmless enough belief, and I wasn’t sure why she was so determined to have her brother examined. I also didn’t really understand why Oscar was so willing to be involved. I found the romance between Iris and Oscar the weakest element in the story — I saw that he was attracted to her, but I didn’t really see how he became so devoted to her so quickly. I didn’t really see him in love, which bothers me mostly because he ends up having to go to such lengths to help her out in this story. That being said, it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the story, because all the other plot lines were so gripping.
As we learn more about Iris and Eden’s childhood, and as Eden takes his belief in music’s healing ability to even greater extremes, we begin to understand that Eden isn’t quite as harmless as we may have thought. One of the most fascinating characters in the novel is Dr. Herbert Crest, a psychologist who has studied Narcissistic Personality Disorder and who, losing his personal battle with cancer, is writing a book Delusions of Hope, about his failure to find an alternative cure for his condition. This makes him a prime candidate for Oscar to approach for help regarding Eden; perhaps Dr. Crest can expose Eden as a fraud. Or, perhaps, can Eden possibly prove Dr. Crest wrong?
Here’s the thing: Eden’s charisma affects even us. What if Eden isn’t a fraud? What if his music really can heal people? A rational part of my mind kept insisting that his ability couldn’t possibly be real, and yet another part of me couldn’t help but hope it was. As Dr. Crest says, “Hope is a form of madness. A benevolent one, sure, but madness all the same.” Yet it is a madness that we almost want to embrace. I’ve lost several loved ones to cancer, I also know others who have survived it, and I can’t even begin to describe how much I think cancer just really, really sucks. So when we have a character who might, conceivably, have the ability to cure cancer with music, well, it’s a seductive idea. Even within fiction, the tiniest, slimmest chance of a cure is offered, and yes, I want to believe in it. Eden, to me, had his controlling, arrogant moments, but I also wanted to believe he was a hero, that he did have this power, that, even in fiction, cancer could be conquered.
The potential of Eden’s power seduced me, and the reality of Eden’s megalomania devastated me. His desperation to have his power proven right, and to be viewed as a hero and a healer, leads to some truly horrifying acts. I think it’s because I was so sucked into this world that I was affected so completely. It was almost painful to be so disillusioned by Eden, not so much with regard to the veracity of his healing power, as with the realization that Eden is ultimately only after power.
I absolutely love Bellwether Revivals! A powerful, gripping story that seduces us much as the charismatic, frightening Eden Bellwether casts a spell over the people around him. In so many ways, Eden is a predator, and like any predator, he also has the ability to lure his victims. Bellwether is chilling because we realize how easy it is to be sucked in, indeed to want to be sucked in. For the reader, as for the characters, the return to reality is painful, but necessary. Difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Benjamin Wood is definitely an author to watch, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Follow Benjamin Wood on Twitter: @bwoodauthor.