The Bellwether Revivals Hardcover – Mar 20 2012
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“Benjamin Wood's debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, draws readers in, much as Eden's organ draws Oscar, a young nursing-home care assistant, into King's College Chapel, at Cambridge. It doesn't matter that Oscar is an atheist. Before he knows it, he's sat through an entire service – just as the reader has stayed up all night, seduced by Wood's vivid prose, swept up in a crescendo of suspense. . . .”
—Globe and Mail
“This meaty and satisfying psychological thriller is an impressive literary debut. . . . Wood finds a way to keep [his plot] fresh and interesting, even as much of the action unfolds in an old and ominous estate. . . . Wood also powerfully conveys the transformational qualities of music, essential to fully realizing Eden's character. . . . An entertaining read.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“The text hints at the plot lines and stylistic whirls of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician and other memorable British fiction from the first half of the last century. . . . [Wood] can write lovely prose and is able to maintain a page-turning narrative pace.”
“Wood creates intriguing characters and situations that are difficult to resist. The ultimate resolution of this fast-paced novel is equally mesmerizing.”
“When Wood allows Oscar, the voice of the novel, to wander the history-saturated city [of Cambridge] the novel soars. . . . Cambridge itself is the antagonist and allurement of subtlest force in Oscar’s life, and the stellar character of The Bellwether Revivals.”
“Eden Bellwether is one of the most intriguing and disturbing literary characters I've come across -- and he's what makes Benjamin Wood's The Bellwether Revivals such a page-turner. . . . This is a stunner of a debut novel, and Wood creates a palpable sense of dread and foreboding throughout. Though he deals with weighty subjects such as the religion vs science debate, psychology, and the power of music, the plot never suffers, moving along at a brisk pace.”
—CityTV (citytv.com Friday bookclub)
“Accomplished, atmospheric, and suspenseful . . . . Wood’s prose attains the high level of craft we expect from literary novels.”
—Quill & Quire
“It’s impossible not to think of Donna Tartt when you read Benjamin Wood’s debut novel. . . . The Bellwether Revivals is a very good first novel . . . classically told.”
“An intellectual and eerie novel . . . part psychological thriller, part philosophical coming-of-age grand saga.”
“In this multi-themed and far-reaching novel, the dichotomies of reason and superstition, sanity and madness, science and faith, are given close and sustained attention.”
“A powerful read that explores the conflicts that arise between logic, religion and blind faith.”
"In prose that's unfussy but effortlessly vivid, filled with nice descriptive flourishes ... Wood's confident, sometimes creepy debut novel draws you in – like the faintly heard strain from that hauntingly played pipe-organ – and then, once you're inside, holds on, ever tightening its grip."
—Independent on Sunday
“‘Benjamin Wood’s debut is strong on character; a well-moulded cast of individuals help the plot run along fluidly… Finely crafted, well plotted and outwardly readable—a very strong debut indeed.”
—We Love This Book (UK)
“Well-drawn . . . richly imagined emotion . . . Wood’s confident, sometimes creepy debut novel draws you in—like the faintly heard strain from that hauntingly played pipe-organ—and then, once you’re inside, holds on, ever tightening its grip.”
—The Independent (UK)
“A timely examination of the conflict between religion and scepticism. . . . Readers will find themselves transfixed by this richly drawn cast of characters. The fact that Wood can hold his own in such heavyweight company is a measure of his achievement.”
“Previous authors have explored the proximity of genius to madness, but Wood treats this familiar theme with a freshness and intelligence that hint at greater things to come.”
"The Bellwether Revivals is a stunningly good debut novel, a thrilling story of music and its hold on a group of young people's minds and lives. Ben Wood writes with vigor, precision and intensity, with a story that will keep readers up all night."
—Steven Galloway, author of Ascension and The Cellist of Sarajevo
“The Bellwether Revivals renders the cruelties and frailties of genius with acuity and tenderness, exploring the naïve sophistication of bright young minds, the moral immunity granted to coteries of privilege, and the true nature of mastery in art. Seductive, resonant, and disquieting, Benjamin Wood’s novel captures strains and cadences, qualities of music that are rarely rendered except in sound. Dextrously unsettling and deeply empathetic.”
—Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal
About the Author
BENJAMIN WOOD was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. In 2004, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing programme at the University of British Columbia. During his tenure as fiction editor of Canadian literary journal, PRISM international, the publication was awarded the Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Benjamin's short fiction has appeared in several international journals, and his novel The Bellwether Revivals was shortlisted for the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize Sony Reader Award for the best unpublished novel. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where he teaches and develops undergraduate programmes.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The story centers on a group of young college students in England but is told from young Oscar's perspective, an initial outsider to both the group and the college world. He works at what is essentially a nursing home, where he's befriended Dr. Paulson, who is quite a character himself, both witty and ill-tempered. One day, while crossing near King's College, Oscar is drawn into a church by the organ music playing. This is how he meets Iris Bellwether, a girl he soon falls in love with. It is her brother, Eden, who is playing the music - and Oscar soon finds out that Eden is quite the musical genius.
As the story continues, Eden's behavior becomes more erratic, leading Iris to ask for Oscar's help. Eden believes he can heal people with music, and the bizarre things that he experiments with come closer to real danger for everyone involved.
When recommending the book to a friend, I told him that the story involves music theory/hypnosis/healing, the thin line between genius and insanity, psychology, what it feels like to be an outsider, an uncomfortable relationship between siblings, and dead bodies. It might sound a little nuts, but the story draws you in - and the pacing couldn't be better. I could barely stand to put the book down, yet I hated that it had to end. In many ways, it reminded me of Donna Tartt's `The Secret History,' which is a huge compliment since that is one of my favorite books ever. Like `The Secret History,' the story sort of works in reverse; you're given a dramatic scene, and the rest of the book shows you how the characters wound up there. The academic setting, the disturbing, dark tones, and the surprising lengths some of the young characters are willing to go are also reminiscent of Tartt's book. That being said, `The Bellwether Revivals' is wholly its own story, and I can't wait to read Benjamin Wood's next novel.
First of all - this book is described as a "masterpiece,"; a word that immediately sets me on edge because I feel as if I'm being set up to be disappointed. Secondly - the book centers around music - yet another thing that is bound to disappoint me since very few authors actually take the time to write intelligently about music and throw words around like Chopin and Beethoven like they are the end all/be all of classical music.
But once I began to read I was completely enchanted by the story being told. The beginning is perfect, and I don't want to spoil it by writing about it in detail - but as far as tension and masterful writing goes? It's a 5 out of 5. It sets a gothic tone, is gritty, powerful and made me want to find a corner where I could be sucked into the story and not leave until it was finished. That feeling warred with one that was wanting me to slow down and savor it, like every last bite of a really delicious piece of pie. I didn't want the story to end, yet I craved the ending and every bite along the way.
The Bellwether Revivals is the story of a strange pairing of siblings - academic, rich kids who attend King's College. Into their life comes a man who is employed at, what is essentially, a nursing home. He lacks the education of the set of people the siblings are involved with, yet reads and furthers his own mind outside of the classroom in a way that the rich set only dreams of.
Added to the fantastic richness of the characters is science - specifically psychology. I cannot describe how perfect the pace was for this book, how thrilling and unnerving certain scenes were, and how amazing and fascinating some of the diagnoses were that kept the story flowing.
Benjamin Wood didn't go deeply into musical theory, but he researched enough to pull names into the story that are known well to the academic classical music world, and he wrote with enough detail that the vagueness of what was happening seemed plausible enough.
I cannot describe how much I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to fans of gothic stories, both new and old.
The pacing is uneven and the character development is out of order, passages offering insight to the basic character of the female protagonist are found in the middle of the book rather than the beginning where it would have been more helpful and engaging for the reader. There is also a conflict this character struggles with that is dealt with inconsistently. She and her boyfriend argue about it, it's an underlying source of friction in their relationship and then it's forgotten and doesn't come up again.
The male protagonist is inserted into an existing group of friends but there is never any mention of the friends he had before he met them. The way he's characterized he would have had a large circle of friends and acquaintances in his life that he would have been connected to. It was just another thing that was inconsistent and unrealistically depicted.
All of the key events have a forced and contrived feeling to them. The relationships are strange and unnatural, the way the group of friends conduct themselves while visiting the Bellwethers' home is odd. There are referenced that don't make sense, for example one character wonders how the group all learned to play so well but they are not playing they are singing. There is also a mention that someone is the only good thing to come out of "all of this" but the person being referred to came before "all of this" happened.
I made four pages of notes on the specifics of what didn't sit well with me in this story, I don't want to include spoilers for potential readers so I will be vague but there is an event that happens at the end of the book and not one character acts in a natural or believable way. I do have to include just one specific example though; there is a different situation later on that requires someone to call for emergency assistance and the character who says they will do so goes into a house to find a phone. The story is set in 2006 and the primary characters are wealthy young college students, cell phones are mentioned in the story and the fact that none of them have a cell phone on them at this particular moment is just one more example of the lack of realism to the story. The fact that they have to go inside to find a phone doesn't add anything to the story itself.
This is another book that I offered up for a book club choice to read this month and another one I'm greatly relieved we didn't choose.
Iris and Eden were products of privilege: boarding school, music lessons, prestigious university education, with neither a thought to money nor concept of cost. Oscar's life couldn't have been more different. But his and Iris's mutual attraction transcended the difference in their social backgrounds, and they swiftly fell in love. Iris's and Eden's small group of friends made room in their closed circle for Oscar. Eden, on the other hand, remained aloof, disapproving, with a penchant for insults so subtle Oscar wasn't sure he actually heard them, or if he was being overly sensitive.
Over time, Iris began to confide in Oscar her worries about Eden: the childhood mistreatments, the obsessive behavior, the sheer hubris of his belief that he can heal people through music. Convinced he suffered from a severe psychological disorder, she wondered if there was someone who could help: in secret, of course, because Eden would never willingly subject himself to therapy. Together, she and Oscar came up with a plan to have Eden evaluated, thus setting in motion the beginning of the end, and the tragedy that opens and closes the book.
Benjamin Wood's debut novel is beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. He captures the opulence and arrogance of the Bellwethers' lifestyle as seen through Oscar's eyes, with echoes of Fitzgerald's "The rich are different" ringing through the prose. The living room at the Bellwether family home had "...the conscious extravagance of a hotel lobby;" Iris's parents "...spent more money on cognac than most people could retire on." Oscar enjoys the luxury of becoming part of this privileged circle, but he is not seduced by it, and in the end, may be the only person who survives relatively undamaged.
The story revolves around a group of friends attending Cambridge. Of the group, two are siblings, Iris and Eden Bellwether. The two meet Oscar, a high school grad who works a menial job at a nearby nursing home. They are worlds apart, but Oscar joins their little "flock."
There is something about British novels set in the present that almost must follow a script. The boarding school snobs, eccentric bright young things, irascible old men. Stodgy traditions sanctified by time and not reason. The incessant talk that defines college-aged kids who are vocalizing their adulthood like mating calls. It's familiar on some level and yet other as an American. The class distinctions drive me nuts. There is so much resentment and pride topped with a stubborn chokehold on maintaining the status quo that annoys the hell out of me. Each subscriber lives one-half centuries behind while ostensibly embracing all the intellectual advances of the present with the other half. It's totally schizophrenic.
Perhaps that explains the common theme of the abnormal psyche in many modern British novels. Really, it's fetishized. The English mystery (by which we also mean Scottish, etc.) almost invariably contain a mental issue at the root of any serious chain of events. I suppose my experience is mostly anecdotal, but outside of the comedic (and sometimes even then), a particularly dark strain of psychology shadows characters of the UK. This book is no exception. There is nothing accidental about who, what, where, and why - for all the god-playing, the tragedy is inbred. I'm not suggesting that the story is a foregone conclusion, but there is an underlying tension that something has to give.
Unlike other stories where you feel the characters can alter the course - often evoking all kinds of feelings when bad things happen due to their action or inaction - Oscar, Iris, Eden, et al. are not in control despite choices being made. They are in the grip of history, an alternate history, being played out. This isn't to say they are made out to be pawns or marionettes. The characters are remarkably drawn and I particularly loved Oscar, an atheist, for his morality. He is wonderfully appealing as a moral compass in light of how religion shapes part of the narrative. All of the players behave believably whether this makes them likable or not. Despite creating complex characters, Wood also shades each one with real humanity. Eden's egoism is a major turn off, but his greater intentions veer decidedly towards benevolence. Even secondary characters with less exposure show evolution in a way that is entirely true, like when Mrs. Bellwether, a cold, old-school Anglican snob if ever there was one, endorses Oscar, a godless blue-collar boy.
These layers of The Bellwether Revivals are superb. The intersection of music, religion, science, literature, philosophy, medicine, psychology, family, class, education, aging and death are handled directly and yet unobtrusively. They go together naturally, much as they do in real life. This was brought vividly to mind because I read this book concurrently with another with uncannily similar themes. I admit that I finished Gameboard of the Gods before this one even though I started Bellwether first. It's not that Bellwether didn't grab me - it did, from page one - but the sexier, fast-paced sci-fi gripped me. I won't compare them - it's pointless when the genres and their respective aims are so disparate - but Wood's virtuosity leaps into consciousness as I see how independent treatments of the same subjects can reach equally enjoyable ends, but not equally transcendent ones.
I was surprised how moved I was by The Bellwether Revivals. Based on the summary, I expected a cynical, maybe even horrific, take on modern society through the prism of this highly privileged setting of highly privileged people. Academics gone monstrous in insularity is a common theme of literary fiction. These can be entertaining and insightful, but rarely emotionally affecting. Wood places us, the readers, into the shoes of each of these varied characters and turns the screws on our perceptions - where the dark is not always obscuring and the obvious cannot find a consensus.