I love spreading the word about good fiction, especially by debut authors – you can take my reviews as recommendations because I don’t have time to spend on books I haven’t enjoyed. It’s fascinating taking a critical look at how and why a novel works but it can be surprisingly hard to pin down. Some authors get the various elements of the story to work together with a subtlety that’s like alchemy.
The Bellwether Revivals is that kind of book, as I somehow knew it would be. Benjamin Wood’s debut is the second of my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012 and I couldn’t wait to read it. As mentioned in my previous post Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?, I love the title, it’s classy and gives the book a distinctive identity. I also found it intriguing and that was even before I heard what it was about. Intriguing is not the word….
The Bellwether Revivals takes a well-worn format and twists it from the word Go. Main character from humble background insinuates self into the lives of a bunch of posh people, except that this time it’s different, and it’s crucial to the story that it is. 20 year-old Oscar Lowe doesn’t aspire to the lifestyle of super-privileged Cambridge students Iris and Eden Bellwether and their entourage, he’s not even at the university. He’s an unqualified care assistant at Cedarbrook, a home for the elderly in the city, a job which belies his intellectual curiosity and his ability to read people. When he and Iris Bellwether fall in love, all he wants is to be alone with her, but she is rarely alone. She comes as part of an indivisible set.
Iris’s older brother Eden is a delusional musical genius with some very dark and disturbing ideas. A brilliant organist, he is obsessed with the obscure German Baroque composer Johann Mattheson and persuades his sister and closest friends to take part in experiments to prove that the music gives him the power to heal or revive. Despite initially enlisting Oscar to help gather proof that Eden is insane, Iris’s resolve wavers and only he, with an outsider’s detachment, retains the ability to see Eden for what he really is – dangerous and out of control.
None of the Bellwether family seemed entirely real to me, especially not Eden, but I was so captivated by the story that I really didn’t care; I accepted that it was extraordinary because that’s the whole point. The premise of the novel and its execution is compelling and original; although I’ve read some great books with a similar feel, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton, I’ve never read anything quite like it. Benjamin Wood is a very accomplished writer, whose prose engages every sense even when it comes to music, which presents a challenge because many readers (myself included) are not musical enough to imagine the sound accurately based on a description. Yet listen:
The more the music came surging towards him (Oscar), the sadder he felt – because as surely as he could picture Eden as an organist at a magnificent cathedral like St Paul’s or Notre Dame, he could also picture him as a patient in some white-walled psychiatric wing, playing silent toccatas on the windowsill.
Events are related through Oscar’s point of view in a third person narrative in which he acts as a bridge between the surreal world of the Bellwethers and the one in which people like him grow up on drab estates, do important but menial jobs for low pay and are destined to suffer the frailty and indignities of old age like the residents of Cedarbrook. The interaction between Oscar and the two elderly men in the story, his patient Dr Paulsen and American psychologist Herbert Crest, was beautifully conveyed, the insights into ageing and mortality terribly moving and all the more remarkable coming from someone not even 30 when he wrote the novel. At times I felt I could hear the wisdom of someone considerably older than me (and I’m considerably older than Benjamin Wood). No matter that I didn’t entirely buy it coming from the 20 year old Oscar – I wasn’t convinced that he would read Descartes either, I’d got it that he was bright (still, at least he didn’t find it easy!) The thing about Oscar that did jar with me throughout was his name, which seemed an unlikely choice by his parents as described, and I wondered why the author didn’t choose something classless like David or Matthew.
Two pages in, I was worried. There was a ‘Prelude’ which reveals a great deal about the outcome of Eden’s experiments. It was an arresting and dramatic opening, but it’s a risky tactic that can easily rob a story of suspense and ruin the ending. Well, it’s a testimony to Wood’s skill as a storyteller that it doesn’t do that. He reached a perfect judgement on how much to reveal and how much to withhold, keeping my curiosity alive all the way through, desperate to fill in the sinister details. Later, there’s a moment so shocking I can’t get it out of my head. The Bellwether Revivals will make a stunning film.
Wood’s stylish, sensual novel really cast a spell on me. A fictional experiment.
No new post next week, it’s half term and my younger son thinks I spend too much time on the computer (he’s right). Back the week after with an article on book groups.