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.