The Discover selection committee was quite taken by Benjamin Wood’s debut, The Bellwether Revivals, a novel of psychological suspense reminiscent of Sharp Objects, Gossip of the Starlings, and The Secret History (with a bit of a Brideshead Revisited feel to it). A young man falls in love with a beautiful, quirky, upper-class British girl and trouble ensues when they’re both caught up in her emotionally-troubled brother’s obsessions.
Benjamin talks about the consolation of music, the conflict between faith and doubt, and how all of his characters are outsiders with Discover Great New Writers.
The Bellwether Revivals is set amidst the colleges and spires of Cambridge, but it seems to be an outsider’s story — the protagonist, Oscar, is a nursing home assistant, rather than a student at the university. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I think people like me, who aren’t students at Cambridge, experience the place in a very different way to those who live within college grounds. Everywhere you go, the legacy of history surrounds you — the city is practically a monument to scholarship and achievement. On one hand, its an inspiring environment, but, on the other hand, it’s daunting and relentless. You’re constantly aware that this world is walled-off and unavailable to you, and somehow you can’t help but feel excluded from it. These outer and inner faces of the colleges, and its effects on the way people view the city, were what I hoped to depict in the novel.
Oscar is a young, capable, intelligent person from an everyday background, who, for reasons that he later explains, has chosen not to go to university but to take a job in a nursing home. He reveres the idea of scholarship, and he chooses to live in a place where seats of learning are all around him, but he doesn’t feel inferior to the students behind the gatehouses, just different. This is what I hoped to show by telling the story from his viewpoint. As much as Oscar is trying to be accepted into the Bellwethers’ life of privilege, they are also vying for acceptance in the ‘real’ world that Oscar understands. Everyone in the book, in that respect, is an outsider.
Music — and whether or not it has the capacity to heal — is a prominent feature of the book. What drew you to writing about this subject?
I would guess that most of us have sought consolation in music at one point in our lives, be it a classical piece or a pop song. The emotional power of music — how a simple melody can comfort and relieve us, elevate our spirits, and bring memories as vivid as any picture to the surface of our minds — is something I’ve always wanted to understand in more definite terms. As a self-taught musician, my relationship with music has always been more visceral than intellectual — I would feel my way around a guitar or a piano without fully appreciating the notes I was playing. But my aim with The Bellwether Revivals was to build a story around a character who understands the more cerebral aspects of music, who believes he can manipulate its properties for healing effects. Eventually, I conceived of Eden Bellwether — a gifted organ scholar at King’s College, who becomes obsessed by the theories of a forgotten Baroque composer.
The novel has been described in the British press as “multi-themed and far-reaching.” How would you describe its appeal?
I hope that the novel has a number of story elements that might engage different kinds of readers. The love story between Oscar and Iris Bellwether is very much at the foreground — she is Eden’s younger sister, and a second-year medical student at King’s, with whom Oscar grows increasingly enamored. But a number of themes and elements branch off from this, as their relationship develops. There is the class tension caused by the inner/outer worlds of Cambridge. Conflicts of faith and doubt arise when Eden begins to make claims about his musical powers. And, as the characters are pulled deeper into Eden’s world, they begin to test the validity of his ideas through a series of experiments: so there is also a consistent clash between the logic of science and belief in the spiritual or metaphysical.
Aspects of the novel take place at Cedarbrook, the nursing home where Oscar works. How much did your experiences of growing up in a nursing home affect the way you approached these scenes?
There’s a line in the novel about the residents of Cedarbrook being “a cast of relatives Oscar was grateful to have adopted,” and that probably reflects my feelings about growing up in the nursing home my parents used to own — it gave me an extended family. My happy memories of the place, of the sights and sounds of growing up around so many elderly people, was something I called on in The Bellwether Revivals to give insight into Oscar’s character and nature, as well as to provide a tone of compassion in the novel that contrasts with Eden’s self-serving plans. I wanted Cedarbrook to echo the positive, caring environment that I remember growing up in rather than the bleak picture of neglect and misery that can often be portrayed in the media.
Stewart O’Nan is a writer whose work has often been recommended to me by friends in North America, but his books can be difficult to find on the shelves here in Britain. Thankfully, I managed to get a copy of his latest novel, The Odds, from my US publisher. A very slim book, it tells the story of a married couple’s doomed second honeymoon to Niagara Falls, where they plan to bet their life savings at the roulette wheel. O’Nan manages to capture the disintegration of the marriage expertly, offering tiny quivers of hope throughout, to imply that their situation might yet be redeemed. It’s a gently suspenseful and moving novel, and the final chapter is worth the admission price alone. Without being derivative or imitative, O’Nan’s style reminded me of the best of Richard Yates’s writing: simple, earnest characters failing in agonizingly familiar ways.
[Stewart O’Nan’s debut novel, Snow Angels, was a Discover Great New Writers selection in 1994, as was Donna Tartt’s debut, The Secret History, in 1992. — Ed.]
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked. by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.