The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Oscar Lowe is a care assistant at a Cambridge nursing home. One October night on his way home, he takes a shortcut through the grounds of King’s College and stops outside the famous chapel:

A service was underway inside. He could already hear the muted thrum of organ music behind chapel walls, and when he turned into the Front Court, the sound grew louder and sweeter, until he was close enough to make out the fullness of the instrument — a low, hoarse purr. He could almost feel it against his ribs. It was nothing like the over-powering dirges he remembered from school Christmas services, or the blundering renditions of ‘Abide with me’ he’d strained to sing over at his grandparents’ funerals. 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. Oscar stopped in the entrance just to listen and saw the sandwich board near the open doorway: ‘Evensong 5:30, Public Welcome’. Before he knew it, his feet had carried him all the way inside.

Oscar is not religious so the readings and sermon of the service bore him. But the music, both organ and choir, is hypnotizing. And he notices that a very attractive blonde woman is showing a similar response, “kneeing the hymn book to the floor midway through the sermon, causing the reverend to pause”; he delays his departure so that he can follow her out.

His ruse works and when Oscar emerges from the chapel, she is still there, thumbing through an old paperback and smoking a clove cigarette. She smiles up at him and the two engage in conversation — and obvious interest. Finally, she asks his name:

‘Os-car. That’s nice.’ She spoke his name out into the night, pondering it, as if she could see it scrolling across the sky, on a banner pulled by an aeroplane. ‘Well, Oscar, don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but church doesn’t really seem like your scene. I was watching you in there — you didn’t know a bloody word of any of the hymns.’

‘Was it that obvious?’

‘Oh, it’s not a bad thing. I’m not exactly St Francis of Assisi myself.’

‘To be honest, I just sort of stumbled in. Something about the music, the sound of the organ. I can’t quite explain it.’

‘That’s my excuse, too.’ She breathed out another whorl from the side of her mouth. ‘My brother’s the organ scholar. That was him playing tonight. I’m just a tag-along.’

Those extended quotes supply a good indication of the deliberate, almost formal, pace that dominates Benjamin Wood’s narrative in this debut novel, not unlike the organ music that is every bit as essential to the book. Oscar has just met Iris Bellwether — one drawn to the chapel by the compelling music, the other there because her brother is playing it.

As readers, we already know that this will end in tragedy. In a two-page prologue, author Wood has previously describe the arrival of an ambulance crew some months later at an estate outside Cambridge. There are two dead bodies and a third “still breathing, but faintly”. That third is Eden, Eden Bellwether, the organist of the opening pages.

The attraction of Oscar and Iris will blossom into a love affair. More important, for the thrust of the novel, Oscar is introduced into a small “flock” of Cambridge students: Iris, Marcus, Yin and Jane, and their “shepherd”, Eden. The five have been together since public school where they were all part of the same choir. All are now studying at Cambridge but Iris’ attraction to Oscar, the lowly care attendant from a nursing home, means that he is allowed into the “flock”.

To make this novel work, there needs to be another side to the tension and it comes from Oscar’s work. His favorite patient at the nursing home is an aging academic, Abraham Paulsen. Paulsen is grumpy and wants his solitude; overtly mean to most of his attendants, but not Oscar to whom he lends books. Oscar could well be a Camridge student himself but disputes with his father and a desire to escape home meant he opted for work insead of study — still, Paulsen is gently supervising his development and lends him books (Descartes is the most recent).

Paulsen is also gay and his lifetime love is one Herbert Crest, a former student. The two fell out some decades ago but Crest has gone on to great fame across the pond in the US. He is a psychiatrist who has developed both a scholarly and populist international following, based on books that take a particular case study and expand on it. One of them, The Girl With The God Complex, developed the thesis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which Crest has virtually defined. Crest now has a far-advanced brain tumor, is approaching the end of his days and calls on Paulsen for a final reconciliation and farewell which is where Oscar meets him.

It gives nothing away to say that Eden Bellwether, the shepherd of the flock, has NPD issues. He has developed a thesis based on “music therapy” (the power of music to hyponitize individuals) that coupled with his own self-imagined God-given talents allows him to “heal” people in the same way that evangelical charlatans practice their trade.

So, much like the author, I have given you the start and the finish of this novel. An “innocent”, Oscar, through understandable sexual attraction, finds himself part of a “flock” that is involved, because of its shepherd, in some very dodgy business. And we know it will produce tragic results.

There is a consistent method that Wood uses to develop his incidents as the novel unfolds. The introductory elements are put forward quickly and in a straightforward manner. There is obvious foreshadowing, so we have strong perceptions about the outcome with each one. The beauty, such as it is, is in how we get from A to B.

I’ll do my best to reflect that technique here: you know the start and you have a good idea of the end, with just an indication of what might happen along the way. I’ll leave the intervening developments for you to discover, if you choose to read the book.

And I will admit that I have tried to structure this review in a similar form, so let’s test my attempt.

Does all this suggest that The Bellwether Revivals is a British version of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt? A tightly-knit group of very smart, but very incomplete, college students comes under the influence of a powerful, charismatic (and twisted) leader. He drives them toward dangerous territory — their self-containment and intelligence mean they don’t attract attention from conventional authorities and can pursue their misguided business without interruption. But the contradiction inherent in their deviant behavior starts to bubble from within. Tragedy ensues.

That comparison kept running through my mind throughout the book and I suspect it will for anyone who has read Tartt’s novel (and a lot of people have). I liked The Secret History well enough, so that is a recommendation, not a criticism. Despite that, The Bellwether Revivals is not without its problems.

Most obvious is that prologue — knowing how the story will end, certainly puts a damper on speculation along the way. I can understand why the author made the decision, however. Had he not, the foreshadowing involved would have made the outcome so obvious that it would have been a downer when it arrived. Revealing it in advance means that the reader can focus on the nuances of what happens along the way since they are meant as the real meat of the book.

More problematic, however, is the characterization issue. Oscar is an outsider being introduced to a “flock” with its own rules, which are very different from those he knows, so he is a developing character throughout — and Wood handles this well, even if it is a bit obvious. For the novel to work completely, though, Eden needs to be “superior” to those around him in both intrigue and intelligence. On this front, the author is far less successful; the result being that the members of the flock tend to be under-developed rather than their leader being more complex and interesting.

That is a relatively minor quibble — The Bellwether Revivals is a highly engaging read, although not a classic “literary” novel. Let me offer another alternative. If you happen to be heading off later this year on a summer holiday with a bunch of friends where the practice is to exchange books so you can talk about them as the holiday goes on, this is one to mark down as your contribution, just as The Secret History was some 20 years ago. It is readable and entertaining — and offers much for discussion with your own “flock”, even if you are unlikely to pick it up for a re-read a decade down the road.

Not a bad debut at all.

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27 Responses to “The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I enjoyed your review, though it probably isn’t for me for now.

    I often do like it when an author tells us how the story will end, because it does avoid all the necessary (and sometimes obvious) foreshadowing, as you point out. But, then I am the kind of guy who likes a book about a guy walking around musing and not much else happening.

    The problem of getting Eden right is a big one and a hard one. Robert Penn Warren achieved this in All the King’s Men, the first example that comes to mind. It must be incredibly hard to pull off without, as you note in this novel, watering down the other characters a bit to achieve the contrast in charisma.

    It sounds, though, like this is a writer worth keeping an eye on in the future (or, if circumstances are right, the present).

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: It is a very readable book, but not one that you have to rush out and buy for next week. Hanging on for the right circumstances (such as a good ocean holiday) makes sense.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Sounds intriguing. Two questions:
    1) what does “kneeing the hymn book to the floor midway through the sermon,” mean? Is it literal?
    2)what are “NPD issues”?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy:

    1. Midway through the service, because Iris was not paying attention she just “kneed” the hymn book off her lap onto the floor, disrupting the service.
    2..As for NPD issues, please look back one para.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Guy: Because you are a nice person, I am sure you have never disrupted a service in your life. Some of us come from a different background, so the idea of making a bunch of noise with a hymn book is an obvious first start. Farts would be next, but we will let that go. Anything to disrupt the vicar.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Who says I’ve ever gone to a service. It’s a dirty lie, I tell you.

    Got the NPD thing–I couldn’t past NYPD which shows where my mind is.

    This comes out in NA in the summer

  6. David Says:

    I read this a few weeks ago and thought it was hugely entertaining, though your minor quibble about Oscar was a bit more than that for me and came close to undermining the whole book. Oscar was clearly supposed to be far more intelligent than his author is and as such I was never convinced by his genius, which is unfortunate as the whole genius/madness thing was at the centre of the story. The result was that everyone else in the book seemed a bit dim. Still I whipped through it in no time and enjoyed it immensely, but perhaps in the way I enjoy an episode of ‘Lewis’ (and, wrong city I know, but I did keep expecting Lewis and Hathaway to turn up at the Bellwether’s place!), which is to say it looks sophisticated and clever but at the end you realise golden sunlight on old university buildings and a bit of classical music can cover up a lot of shortcomings.

    • David Says:

      Obviously when I said Oscar, I meant Eden (oops). I blame it on having read a couple of books lately featuring pianists/organists and characters called Oscar/Oskar…

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thanks for mentioning Lewis — I’d tried to figure out a way to reference the show in the original review but couldn’t do it without making it look forced. I too kept having it come to mind to the point that I’m afraid my mental image of the book was actually set in Oxford, not Cambridge.

  8. Katie Says:

    Hi Kevin, I read your review with interest as I studied in Cambridge and loved The Secret History.
    I’m not sure I could face a Secret History knock off though…it really does seem like the ideas are much the same without the focus on the classical world.
    Having said that, maybe I’m being a bit harsh? I’m a sucker for anything set in old university towns, so maybe I’ll get it out the library, but not buy it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Katie: I don’t know Cambridge but I do know Oxford (and the American Cambridge). I don’t think this novel is quite up to The Secret History but it was an entertaining read nonetheless so, yes, wait for it to come up in the library queue. I don’t think it is so great that you will want to have a copy on hand for a second or third read.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was thinking of A Secret History when I reached that point in your review, and of various other works too which I couldn’t quite recall the name of. It all has a hint of familiarity.

    Your last para too chimed with what I was then thinking, that it would make a good holiday read, just as A Secret History did.

    The other issue is also one you had, I know Oxford but though I’ve been to Cambridge I don’t really remember much of what it looked like. I fear my mental imagery would be quite wrong…

    Given my current rather slow reading rate I don’t think this is for me for the moment. It does sound worthwhile though and like the author may be going somewhere.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    While I definitely enjoyed this, it would be a book for the “B” pile — if your A pile is teetering because it is too high, this one can wait. It will be just as good (or medium) four or five years down the road.

    I read a piece in the NY Times a couple years back about “book-pickers” — the homeless or near-homeless who wander the streets of Manhattan and collect books (as opposed to beer cans) left out for trash and show up at the legendary Strand bookstore first thing in the morning to sell their finds. The best part of the story was that the Strand refuses to buy any more paperback copies of The Secret History. Success for this book, alas, would be the same fate — so many copies sold and then left for trash that no used book store would want them.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds about right, in terms of the backup pile. Which is a better showing than Dr Brinkley’s Tower just made – I’m reading as I sometimes do a little pile of back-reviews I missed due to pressures of work. This sounded solid but not me, Dr Brinkley’s didn’t tempt me at all though. If I want light entertainment I read pulp crime or SF. I like my literature literary.

    Love the Secret History story.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Umm…you can definitely give Dr. Brinkley’s Tower a miss. This one, on the other hand, would be perfect for your next trip to Brazil — and you could leave the book itself behind for the flight crew.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m a bit annoyed with myself on Brazil reading actually. I’ve started an SF novel I would otherwise have parked for a while (I wasn’t really in an SF mood) and utterly forgot that I have a copy of Heliopolis which would have been absolutely perfect.

    Ian McDonald is an excellent SF writer, quite similar in some ways to David Mitchell though more plainly in the genre space, but Heliopolis would have made the more immediately appropriate choice.

    So it goes.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Heliopolis would have been great for a Brazil trip. I remember it with fondness even though it has been a couple of years.

  16. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting that this is a British book… I’ve not seen it mentioned anywhere, nor seen it in bookshops.

    I’m not sure this is one for me, though, even though I’m a great fan of The Secret History. Which era is is set? The dialogue you quote upfront sounds a bit forced which makes me think it’s not set in contemporary times…

    As an aside, do people really go on holidays with friends and exchange books to talk about them as the holiday goes on? I’m suddenly feeling very deprived — I’ve never been on a trip like that!

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Wood is Canadian-educated but lives in Great Britain. I’ve seen some reference to this novel on various Booker forums but haven’t followed the conventional press. The setting is contemporary (well, a few years back) — I thought the prose flowed quite smoothly so that might just be a bad example that I quoted.

    And yes people do go on holiday to cottages where they exchange books and talk about them. It was on just such a holiday that I had my first book conversation with our fellow Shadow Giller judge Alison — and the book we discussed was The Secret History.

  18. kimbofo Says:

    My only source of book reviews these days is book blogs and the TLS (I received a gift subscription at Christmas), so maybe it has been reviewed in the mainstream press and I’ve just not seen it.

    I’m sure the prose is smooth, it was more the dialogue I was concerned about. It just seemed a bit stilted, but it’s unfair of me to be critical on the basis of a small extract.

    I do love the sound of a reading holiday with friends (though sadly, none of my friends are readers, clearly I’m moving in the wrong circles) — and I love that that’s how you had your first book conversation with Alison. :-)

    • David Says:

      Kim, it was reviewed in the February 24th issue of the TLS. David Evans says in his review:
      “Of Wood’s own performance, we could simply say that he plays all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. That proleptic opening, while suitably arresting, drains the finale of suspense (we anticipate the identity of the three bodies long before the end). Dialogue can ring false, and the prose is merely efficient, with a reliance on well-worn phrases… But while Wood’s writing lacks the affective power he claims for music, this is nevertheless a promising first novel.”

      • kimbofo Says:

        Oops. I obviously didn’t pay close enough attention to that issue :-) Interesting that the reviewer also picks up on the false dialogue though, so maybe I wasn’t that far off the mark after all.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I’d say that is a pretty fair summary. I did find the dialogue somewhat non-conventional but I attributed that to the “flock” adopting a form of we-speak that excluded others.

  20. janet Says:

    Does no one have anything to say about the writing? The clumsy use of language? Here are just a few examples from only two pages (pp.314-15 in the edition I read. “Ruth was stiil padding the stain,” meaning she was trying to sponge it up. Huh? “His glossy eyes swelled.” What exactly is a glossy eye? “His lungs heaved in his chest, up and down.” Now a heaving lung would be something to see! And finally, “…they could hear the stutter of his feet.” And the author now teaches creative writing. Oh, my breaking heart.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Janet: I gather you didn’t like the novel. :-) David’s quote from the TLS review would seem to go part way down the same path as you, although obviously not as far as your comment does.

    I was entertained enough by the novel that I’d agree with the comment of “efficient” prose — I suspect if I wasn’t enjoying the story, I would have noticed more clunkers.

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