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A sophisticated debut novel about the hypnotic influence of love, the beguiling allure of money and the haunting power of music
Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has escaped the squalid urban neighborhood where he was raised and made a new life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge. He has grown to love the quiet routine of his life as a care assistant at a local nursing home, where he has forged a close friendship with its most ...
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A sophisticated debut novel about the hypnotic influence of love, the beguiling allure of money and the haunting power of music
Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has escaped the squalid urban neighborhood where he was raised and made a new life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge. He has grown to love the quiet routine of his life as a care assistant at a local nursing home, where he has forged a close friendship with its most ill-tempered resident, Dr. Paulsen.
All that changes one fateful day when Oscar, while wandering the bucolic grounds of Cambridge, is lured into the chapel at Kings College by the otherworldly sound of an organ. It is here that he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student. Drawn into the world of scholarship and privilege, Oscar soon becomes embroiled in the strange machinations of Iris’s older brother, Eden.
A charismatic but troubled musical prodigy, Eden convinces his sister and their close-knit circle of friends to participate in a series of disturbing experiments. Eden believe that music—with his expert genius to guide it—can cure people. As the line between genius and madness begins to blur, however, Oscar fears that it is danger and not healing that awaits them all—but it might be too late. . . .
A masterful work of psychological suspense and emotional resonance from a brilliant young talent, The Bellwether Revivals will hold readers spellbound until its breathtaking conclusion.
—Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
“Wood’s novel is weighty and so he sets himself a challenge. Fortunately, in the main, he pulls it off, at times triumphantly. . . . It would be an overstatement to suggest that Wood does for Cambridge what Evelyn Waugh does for Oxford but, to give him his due, he accurately captures, or recreates, that similar youthful hedonism and folly, and Eden is as offbeat and infuriating a creation as Sebastian Flyte. . . . Wood’s own original stamp is his treatment of that brittle boundary between genius and madness, and its inventiveness and execution makes this debut a compulsive read.”
—Malcolm Forbes, The National (UAE)
“From the moment young Oscar follows the organ music in Kings College chapel, I was ready to follow the talented Benjamin Wood anywhere. Wood writes beautifully about music, hypnotism, old people and the lush landscapes of Cambridge. And his intricate plot carries both Oscar and the reader to a place where the stakes, finally, are nothing less than life and death.”
—Margot Livesey, author of the New York Times, bestselling The Flight of Gemma Hardy
“Oh how I loved this novel! I was drawn in from the very first sentence and pretty much didn’t put it down until I reached the last. This is the kind of story that makes you want to hole up under the covers and not come out until you’ve uncovered the mysteries at its heart. I find myself constantly thinking of Wood’s characters—wonderful, surprising Oscar Lowe and those beautiful, doomed Bellwethers. It reminded me, more than anything, of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another novel that utterly consumed me, body and soul.”
—Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of the New York Times bestselling A Fortunate Age
“Discovering the world of Benjamin Wood’s characters is like unlocking a series of psychological puzzles, mysterious and completely engrossing. Impossible to put down, The Bellwether Revivals is a brilliant investigation into obsessions and their entirely unpredictable consequences.”
—Susan Daitch, author of Paper Conspiracies
“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 on Sunday (UK)
“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. Benjamin Wood writes with vigor, precision and intensity, with a story that will keep readers up all night.”
—Steven Galloway, bestselling author of 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.”
—Eleanor Catton, award-winning author of The Rehearsal
“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. . . . An accomplished novel, suffused with intelligence and integrity. Wood gives voice to theories and ideas in a lucid and accessible way. . . . This skillful novel has flow, pace and a lightness of touch.”
—Samantha Harvey, The Guardian (UK)
“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.”
“There’s more than a hint of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History about this novel, with Cambridge taking the place of Vermont… highly effective.”
—The Daily Mail (UK)
“The novel … has as its lodestone Brideshead Revisited … a timely examination of the conflict between religion and scepticism, a theme explored with more rigor than in this novel’s template. There, we rarely doubt that Waugh is on the side of grace and the supernatural. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is also in the DNA here, and there are echoes of another literary analysis of the unhealthy emotional bond between a brother and sister, L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda. Does it matter that Wood wears his influences so clearly on his sleeve? Some may find the book reads like a contemporary filigree on its illustrious predecessors, but most 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.”
—Barry Forshaw, The Independent (UK)
“Music offers no real cure for sickness, as Oscar slowly and disturbingly discovers. The bright boy from the sink estate realizes the Cambridge set he’s been sucked into, in an attempt to ensnare beautiful Iris, is racing towards a terrible danger.”
—The Daily Mirror (UK) (Four-star review)
“Intense . . . Benjamin Wood’s debut plunges into the heart of privileged Cambridge where musical genius Eden Bellwether is the leader of a coterie of acolytes. Outsider Oscar—bookish and estranged from his working-class family—falls for Eden’s sister Iris and becomes involved with Eden’s conviction that he can heal the sick with the music of an obscure baroque composer. Things go wrong when Eden tries to ‘mend’ Iris’s broken leg, and then attempts to cure an author of terminal brain cancer. As events spiral out of control, the conflicts between madness and reason, religion and blind faith, become dangerously real.”
—Marie Claire (UK)
“Students have been in the headlines … will it bring the campus novel back into vogue? With not one but two books featuring students out this month, it certainly seems the case. Written by graduates and both featuring Oxbridge graduates… The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood … boasts a 21st century spin on a genre that once upon a time seemed only to celebrate lofty minded or louche toffs.”
—Mariella Frostrup, Open Books BBC Radio 4
“Praise be, a brilliant debut novel reminiscent of the moral explorations of Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith but younger in temperament, more directly passionate and theatrical.”
—Three Guys One Book
“Wood moves the reader deftly through pastoral Cambridge, into the British upper crust, and ultimately into the mad mind of Eden himself.”
“Read it. Quite a debut.”
—Patrick Neate, author of City of Tiny Lights
“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 … Wood’s stylish, sensual novel really cast a spell on me. A fictional experiment. It worked.”
—Isabel Costello, isabelcostello.wordpress.com
They heard the caterwaul of sirens, and saw the dust rising underneath the ambulance wheels at the far end of the driveway, and soon the darkening garden was a wash of flashing blue lights. It only seemed real when they told the paramedics where to find the bodies. There was one upstairs on the top floor, they said, another in the organ house, and one more at the foot of the garden—the last one was still breathing, but faintly. They had left him on the riverbank in a nest of flattened rushes, with the cold water lapping against his feet. When the paramedics asked for his name, they said it was Eden . Eden Bellwether.
It had taken too long for the ambulance to arrive. For a while, they'd assembled on the back porch of the rectory, thinking, panicking, staring out at the same old elms and cherry trees they'd stared at a hundred times before, hearing the wind disturb the branches. They all felt responsible for what had happened. They all blamed themselves. And so they argued—about who was most to blame, who should feel the guiltiest. The only one who didn't talk was Oscar. He leaned against the wall, smoking, listening to the rest of them bicker. When he finally spoke, his voice was so calm it silenced them.
'It's over now,' he said, extinguishing his cigarette on the porch-rail. 'We can't go back and change it.'
Just a few months ago, they'd been sitting out on the same sap-spotted decking behind the rectory, chatting about nothing too important—the rules of badminton, some Alain Resnais film they'd all seen and hated, the saddening obsolescence of the cassette tape—all six of them just winding down, a bruise of clouds spreading darkly across the Grantchester sky. They'd gathered round the same wooden patio table, picking at the citronella candle drippings on the wine bottles, throwing dry wax at the midges. Everything had been different back then—so weightless and loose and easy.
Now they watched the first paramedic working on the riverbank, feeling for Eden 's pulse, strapping an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, feeding in a drip. They heard the murmur of the other medic's voice coming over the dispatcher: 'VSA. Purple plus. Over.'
They didn't go with Eden in the ambulance. They weren't prepared to follow in their cars. Instead, they went into the organ house to see the other medic wrenching off her latex gloves. She'd placed a green sheet over the body and it was quivering on the breeze. 'Don't be going anywhere,' she warned them. 'The police are on their way.'
It had been the hottest June day but a cold breeze had been gathering strength all evening, and now it was sweeping across the garden, through the open doors of the buildings. It was blowing into the broken pipes of the old church organ, a weak and tuneless drone that sounded on and off, on and off, with the steadiest of rhythms, like some machine that had found a way to breathe.
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
—Sir Francis Bacon
Oscar Lowe would later tell police that he couldn't remember the exact date he first laid eyes on the Bellwethers, though he knew for sure it had been a Wednesday. It was one of those late October evenings in Cambridge when the gun-grey light of the afternoon had faded well before six, and the cobbled avenues of the old town were dark and silent. He had just finished an eight-to-five shift at Cedarbrook, the nursing home on Queen's Road where he was a care assistant, and his mind was slow and heavy, laden with the details of his workday: the vacant faces of the older residents, the pallor of their tongues as they took their pills, the give of their skin as he lifted them into the bath. All he wanted was to get home, to fall upon his bed and sleep right through until tomorrow, when he would have to wake up and do the same things over again.
By cutting through the grounds of King's College, he knew he could shave some time off the walk. In the old city, everybody cycled: the students skittered along the narrow lanes with loaded backpacks, the tourists pinballed from college to college on rented wheels. At any time of day, on any given pavement in Cambridge , someone could be found unlocking a bike from a lamppost and riding off towards the next one. But Oscar preferred the solace of walking.
He crossed Clare Bridge and took the shortcut through the grounds of King's, hearing the flat echo of his footsteps on the path, still glassy from the afternoon rain. Everywhere was quiet. The clipped lawns seemed unusually blue with the indolent glow of floodlamps, and, somewhere close by, woodsmoke was rising from a cottage chimney, giving the impression of fog. As he went by the face of the college chapel, he tried his best not to look up, knowing exactly how it would make him feel: tiny, irrelevant, godless. But he couldn't help staring at it—that formidable gothic building with its tall spindles needling the sky and its giant blackened windows. It was the picture-postcard on every carousel stand along King's Parade. He'd always hated it. Up close, in the near darkness, the place only haunted him more. It was not the architecture that troubled him, but the age of the building, the scale of its history; the royalty who'd once communed there, all the serious people whose faces now thickened encyclopaedias.
A service was underway inside. He could already hear the muted thrum of organ music behind the 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 sandwichboard near the open doorway: 'Evensong 5.30, Public Welcome.' Before he knew it, his feet had carried him all the way inside.
Stained-glass windows surrounded him, barely showing their colours. The vaulted arches of the ceiling seemed to roll out into the distance. At the heart of the building, a wingspan of organ pipes bellowed from a wooden partition, and he could see the sombre congregation waiting in the candlelight on the other side. He found an empty seat and watched the choir filing in. The younger boys stood on the front row in their white gowns, cheerful and distracted; the older boys stood sheepishly behind them, aware of themselves in that teenaged way, fidgeting with their sleeves. When the organ stopped there was a momentary silence, and then the choir began to sing.
Their voices were so synchronised and balanced that Oscar could hardly tell them apart. They surged and retracted with the ease of an ocean, and he felt a rush in his heart as he listened. He was sorry when their hymn ended and the reverend stood to recite the Holy Creed. Across the aisle, people were gamely muttering the prayer, but Oscar stayed quiet, still thinking of the music. By the time he noticed the blonde girl a few spaces along his pew, the congregation had reached, '. . . And sitteth on the right hand of God . . .' She was mouthing the words grudgingly, the way a bored child recites times tables, and, when she saw that he wasn't joining in the prayer, gave a slow roll of her eyes, as if to say: 'Get me out of here.' The simple profile of her face excited him. He smiled at her but wasn't sure that she noticed.
Now the reverend was reading from Jeremiah ('. . . if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth . . .') and Oscar watched the girl and her encumbered, self-conscious movements. Like him, she didn't seem to appreciate the strange etiquette of the church. She kneed the hymn book to the floor midway through the sermon, causing the reverend to pause, and while his dreary lesson continued she toyed with the bezel of her watch, until two pale-faced choristers began a new hymn and the organ started up again.
The only time the blonde girl sat still was when the choir was singing. Her chest rose, inflated; her lip quivered. She seemed awed by the tapestry of their voices, the clarity of their sound, the swelling harmonies that flooded the yawning space above them. Oscar could see her fingers counting out the rhythm on her knee until the final 'Amen'. The choir sat down and silence—like a deployed parachute—descended in the chapel.
At the end of the service, people filtered out by order of importance: first, the choir and the clergy in a procession of white, then the congregation. Oscar hoped he could follow the girl to the door, get close enough to spark a conversation, but he ended up between a group of men debating the merits of the sermon and a softly-spoken French couple consulting their guidebooks for the route home. He lost the sound of her small, scuffing steps behind him as she disappeared into the crowd. Weary tourists moved slowly along the aisles, putting on their jackets and packing away their cameras; young children slept in their fathers' arms while their mothers baby-wiped their fingers. Oscar couldn't see the girl anywhere. He put some change on the collection plate as he went out, and the reverend said, 'Thank you, good evening.'
In the vestibule, the air seemed colder, sharper. Darkness had settled fully over the city and Oscar could feel that familiar, constricting tiredness returning to his shoulders. He turned his collar to the night. It was then, as the crowd dispersed in front of him, that he saw her in the shadows, leaning against the grey stones of the chapel.
She was reading an old paperback, tilting the pages into the second-hand light of the vestibule with one hand, and cradling a clove cigarette between the fingers of the other. Her reading glasses were too big for her face—square with round red corners, like large projector slides. After a moment, she glanced up from her book and smiled.
'One thing I know about church,' she said, 'is to learn where the exits are. It's like being on a plane. Have to get out in an emergency.' Her accent was genteel, proper, the stuff of elocution lessons; but there was also something uncertain about the way she spoke, as if she was trying hard to rough up the edges of her sentences (she had dropped the 'g' of 'being' and it sounded strange).
'I'll try to remember that for next time,' Oscar said.
'Oh, I don't think you'll be coming back in a hurry. Too much Jeremiah, not enough choir. Am I right?'
He shrugged. 'Something like that.'
'Well, I can hardly blame you. They were almost perfect tonight, weren't they? The choir, I mean.' She offered him her cigarette pack and he shook his head. 'Sometimes the beaters aren't concentrating and their timing suffers, but tonight they were really with it.'
'Yeah, I thought so too.'
As Oscar stepped closer, she studied him with a quick motion of her eyes. He wondered if she would see the same things in his face that he saw in the bathroom mirror every morning—those straight, innocuous features that might just pass for handsome, the beginner-slope nose that water streamed down when it rained, that narrow jaw he'd inherited from his mother. He hoped that she could see past his workclothes: the faded leather jacket he wore over his nursing uniform, and the trainers he'd put through the washing machine so many times they were clean but somehow grey.
'Are you sure you don't want a cigarette? I hate smoking on my own, it's so depressing.' She lifted the paperback and examined its cover. 'What about Descartes? We could smoke him. There's enough material here to roll a good cheroot.' She snapped the book shut before he could answer. 'Yes, you're probably right. Descartes would be a bit dry, wouldn't he? Much too heavy on the stomach . . .' There was a moment of silence. She drew on her clove again. 'So do you have a name?'
'Oscar,' he said.
'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 tagalong.'
'Really. It's not the kind of thing I'd bother to lie about.'
'Well, he plays that thing better than anyone I've ever heard. You can tell him from me.'
'Oh, he doesn't need any more positive reinforcement,' she said, laughing at the thought. 'His head's going to swell up like a bloody zeppelin when I tell him you only came inside for the music. He'll take all the credit for that. I love my brother dearly, but I'm afraid the humility gene passed him by.'
Oscar smiled. He could see the Gatehouse beyond her shoulder, yellowed by the desklamps in the porters' lodge, and she was almost outlined by the glow. 'I suppose you're a postgrad,' she said, flitting her eyes towards him again. 'I can tell postgrads from fifty paces. You're all baggy leather and comfortable shoes.'
'Sorry to disappoint you.'
'Alright, okay then—a post-doc. My radar's off.'
'I'm not any kind of student,' he said.
'You mean, you don't go here at all?' It was as if she'd never met anyone from beyond the hallowed grounds. 'But you look so—'
He didn't know if this was a compliment or an accusation.
'I mean, you're practically a fully-fledged member of society already,' she went on. 'I bet you pay taxes and everything. How old are you?' She raised her cigarette to her mouth, left it waiting at her lips. 'I'm sorry. I know it's rude to ask that question, but you can't be much older than I am. Sometimes I can't imagine what else there is to do here besides study.'
'I'm twenty,' he said.
'See, I knew you weren't much older.'
She was not the sort of girl Oscar had grown up around: the mouthy teens who talked inanely on the backs of buses and blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends, whose drunken kisses he'd experienced with cold disappointment on dark, windless recs. She had pedigree—that much was clear from her voice—and he liked the way she looked at him, curious not judgemental. There was depth to her, he could tell. A kind of unashamed intelligence.
'I work at a place called Cedarbrook. It's a nursing home,' he told her. 'But you don't have to pity me—I know how to read and write and everything.'
'Pity you? Christ, I envy you,' she said. 'Cedarbrook. That's the lovely old building on Queen's Road, isn't it? They have all that beautiful wisteria growing on the walls.'
'Yeah. That's the place.'
'Well, anyone who can make wisteria bloom like that every spring deserves a trophy. I walk past that house quite often, just to look at the gardens.'
'I can't take any credit for the wisteria. Not my department. But I'll pass it along.'
She looked down at the scuffed black toecaps of her shoes, rocking on the edges of her feet. 'This is my little corner of the world. I'm a King's girl. Medicine, second year, if you can believe it.'
'Must be hard work.'
'It's not too bad really. Not all of the time, anyway.'
Oscar could only try to imagine the way she lived. He'd been in Cambridge long enough to know the hours the students worked, to see them on the other side of library windows late at night, red-eyed, ruffle-haired. But he knew as little about the everyday lives of Cambridge students as they knew about the daily machinations of Cedarbrook. What went on inside the closed-off doorways of the colleges was an enduring mystery to him. He only knew that it was better to be near to these places, to walk by them and imagine what high-minded discussions were unfolding inside, than to be somewhere like home, where every conversation was audible on the high street and the only landmarks were shopping centres.
When he asked for her name, she replied: 'It's Iris. Like the genus.' And he laughed—just a short vent of air from his nose, but enough for her to step back and say, 'What's so funny?'
'Most people would say like the flower, that's all.'
'Well, I'm not most people. I'm not going to say it's like the flower when I know perfectly well that it's a genus. And I'll tell you something else.' She broke for a gulp of breath. 'I know exactly which variety I am. Iris milifolia. The hardest one to look after.'
'But worth the effort, I'm sure.'
She gazed back at him proudly, the lights of the college buildings reflecting in her lenses. Though Oscar could feel the tiredness more than ever now, weighing down his eyelids, he didn't want to leave. This was where he was meant to be, talking to this strange pretty girl, with her clove and bergamot scent and her copy of Descartes. He wanted to stretch the moment out as far as it would go, tauten it until it broke apart.
'Listen, this might sound a little, y'know,' Iris said, letting the sentence drop away. She scratched the side of her arm and glanced at him. 'It's just, my chamber group has a recital later this week, out at West Road . If you're not doing anything on Sunday night, would you like to come? We could really use all the support we can get.'
He didn't need a second to think about it. 'Yeah, okay. I'll be there.'
'Won't be hard to get a ticket at the door, believe me,' she said. Then, for reasons that weren't clear to him, she laughed out loud.
'What?' he said.
'It's nothing. It's just—you're really going to go, aren't you?'
'Just like that?'
'But you don't even know if we're any good. I haven't even told you what instrument I play. I could be the world's lousiest trombonist, for all you know.'
'I'm not doing anything else that night. And if your brother's an organ scholar, you can't be all that bad.'
'How inductive of you,' she said. 'Do you even know what an organ scholar is?'
'No, but it sounds important.'
'In the college, yes. In the real world, no.' She told him that two scholarships were awarded every couple of years at King's. There was great competition for places amongst undergraduates, and usually a first-year and a third-year were appointed. Her brother was one of the only students in the history of the college to be awarded a scholarship twice. 'A normal person wouldn't want all the extra hassle in his final year, but that's my brother for you. He's irregular.' It was the organ scholars' job to play at the chapel services; they worked on a shift rotation: one week on, one week off. They also assisted the Director of Music in his duties. 'If the Director can't make it for some reason, the organ scholar has to conduct the choir. It hardly ever happens, though. Maybe once a year. My brother's always hoping something horrible will befall the Director, but he's healthy as an ox.' She stubbed out her clove on the drainpipe. 'Anyway, I'll be very glad to see you on Sunday, if you still want to come.'
'Are you an organist too?' he asked.
'Me? No. God, no. I play the cello.' She gave a little sigh, as if she'd been saddled with an instrument she had no interest in. As if one day in a school music lesson all the triangles and tambourines had been doled out, and her teacher had handed her a hunk of wood and said, Here, play this until I find you something better. 'I haven't been practising much recently. Not the recital pieces, anyway.'
'Because studying medicine is quite demanding of my time.'
'And in my free time I read stuff like this.' She raised the book. 'Things my brother tells me I should be reading. I suppose I'm a glutton for punishment that way. The Passions of the Soul. Tell me honestly: am I wasting my youth? Should I just be out there getting drunk with the rest of them?'
'That would be a bigger waste, I think.'
Her face slackened. 'My problem is, I'm too easily steered off course. Have to be doing several things at once.'
'You're a butterfly catcher,' he said.
'That's what my father would call you.'
'Well, I suppose that's a kinder phrase than hyperactive. He must be more patient than my parents.'
Oscar just nodded, peering at the ground. It was strange to hear someone speaking well of his father, because he rarely thought of him that way. He could only recall the rain-soaked building sites where he spent most of his school holidays, helping to heave plasterboards up narrow flights of stairs, and all the weekends he lost stuffing insulation into wall cavities, filling skips with office debris. He could remember the bitterness of his father's voice when they used to argue on the job: 'Go then. Leave me. I'll do it myself. You've always got somewhere better to be, don't you? A butterfly catcher, that's what you are.' This was not patience, Oscar knew, but a resentful kind of endurance.
By the time he turned back to Iris, her attention was elsewhere. She'd noticed something over his shoulder and was gathering herself to leave, fixing her scarf, patting down her coat. The remains of her cigarette lay trodden at her feet. 'My brother's here,' she said. 'I better go.'
Oscar heard the gentle tinkling of bike spokes, and spun around to see a man in a pinstripe blazer wheeling a shiny Peugeot racer, dynamo lights strobing on the path. His corduroy trousers were turned up at the ankles, and a mass of wavy hair was spilling from the edges of his bike helmet. There was something ungainly about the way his blazer hung on his body—shoulders and elbows still prominent beneath the fabric, like a sheet thrown over an upturned table.
'Just a sec,' Iris called to him. She took off her glasses and pushed them into the top pocket of her coat. Without them, her face was more evenly proportioned. 'Here,' she said, tossing the Descartes to her brother. 'Say what you like about French philosophy, but it's no good when you read it in the dark.'
Her brother caught the book and stuffed it into the back of his trousers. 'I'm not letting you off the hook that easily. You're getting it back first thing tomorrow.' He squinted at Oscar as if appraising an antique. 'Who's your friend?'
'This is Oscar,' she told him. 'We've been shooting the breeze, as Yin would say.'
'Oh, yeah? About what?'
'Religion, flowers—all the big issues.'
'Did you know the iris is a genus?' she said.
Her brother lifted an eyebrow. 'I think I knew that in utero.' Propping the bike-frame against one knee, he leaned to offer his slender hand to Oscar. 'If we wait for her to introduce us, we'll be here all night. The name's Eden .' His grip was solid and unforgiving. 'Thanks for keeping her company.'
'My pleasure,' Oscar said. He couldn't quite see Eden 's face— it was partly drawn over by the shadows of the chapel spires—but he could tell that his skin had the texture of a seashell, smooth yet flawed. 'Was that really you playing in there? I've never heard an organ sound so good.'
Eden glanced up at the sky. 'Oh. Well. Thank you. I try my best.'
'You couldn't save his soul, though,' Iris said. 'He's a nonbeliever.' She perched side-saddle on the crossbar of the bike, placing an arm around her brother and kissing him softly on the cheek. 'Shall we go?'
Eden received the kiss, barely reacting. 'Yes, let's,' he said, 'before the porters catch me on this thing. I've already been warned about riding through.'
'I don't know why you insist on cycling. Just take a cab.'
'It's become something of a battle of wills. First man to blink loses. Can't let that happen.' Eden lowered his voice to say something into her ear and she laughed, hitting his arm playfully. 'Shut up,' she said. 'Don't say that.' Then, with a stiff movement of his legs, Eden started to pedal away. 'Good to meet you, Oscar,' Iris said.
'See you Sunday.'
They were quite a sight, the two of them: Eden pumping hard at the pedals just to keep the bike upright, and Iris with her long legs stretched out a few inches above the ground. As they approached the Gatehouse, where the lawn turned at a right angle, she called out into the hazy lamplight, but Oscar couldn't quite tell what she was saying.
A Conversation with Benjamin Wood
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.
Who have you discovered lately?
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. -Ed.]
Benjamin Wood’s ambitious, psychologically compelling debut, The Bellwether Revivals, centers around twenty–year–old nursing home assistant Oscar Lowe and the opulent, heady world of brilliant Cambridge students into whose circle he is drawn. It explores the complicated relationships between scientific skepticism and credulous faith, music and healing, genius and madness, class divisions and the love that can transcend them.
When Oscar walks by King’s College chapel, the otherworldly music wafting out lures him in. “There was a fragility to this music,” he thinks, “as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer,” a description that turns out uncannily prescient [p.4]. Oscar will soon fall in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful medical student and the sister of Eden, the eccentric musical prodigy from the chapel. During the course of the next few months, Eden will play puppet master to Oscar, Iris, and several others, with tragic consequences.
Fascinated by the German composer and music theorist Johann Matheson, Eden is convinced his music has the power not only to manipulate emotions, but even to heal physical wounds and illness. He subjects Oscar to an experiment—a nail is driven into his hand while he’s hypnotized—creating a wound that Eden then apparently heals. Oscar is deeply offended, and highly skeptical, but his hand does heal, and there is just enough ambiguity to make him wonder if Eden truly possesses some extraordinary power or if he is a dangerously narcissistic young man.
Iris and Oscar devise a plan to enlist Dr. Crest, a prominent expert on narcissistic personality disorder who is suffering from a grade four brain tumor and is also writing a book on the delusion of hope—precisely the kind of hope the gravely ill place upon people like Eden. Iris and Oscar want to see if Eden can heal Dr. Crest or if Dr. Crest can help Eden—or at least determine if he is indeed suffering from NPD. Iris is convinced her brother is ill and needs help, but when she breaks her leg and Eden appears to hasten the healing process beyond all expectation, she begins to believe in her brother’s unexplainable gifts.
The novel sustains a high level of psychological suspense as the true nature of Eden’s “powers” hovers ambiguously between the supernatural and the delusional. And as arrogant and eccentric as Eden may be, he is also undeniably brilliant, exerting an irresistible fascination on those around him—and on readers as well. He may be mad—and maddening—but he’s impossible to ignore. Eden is Oscar’s polar, or perhaps bipolar, opposite. Oscar is working class where Eden is soaked in wealth and luxury, level–headed where Eden is reckless, compassionate where Eden is self–aggrandizing, and grounded in reality where Eden inhabits a world of dangerous metaphysical fantasy. They attract and repel each other with a magnetic force, and their interactions bristle with tension throughout the novel.
In bringing Oscar into Iris and Eden’s world and showing it to us from Oscar’s point of view, Wood gives us a rich, multilayered portrait of love and friendship across class lines and offers a brilliant investigation into the vexed relationship between genius and madness.
ABOUT BENJAMIN WOOD
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. He was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also the fiction editor of the literary journal PRISM International. He now lectures in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
A CONVERSATION WITH BENJAMIN WOOD
Q. Why did you choose to begin the novel with the chaos of the crime scene, with a prelude that presents the aftermath of the novel’s main action?
I felt it was important for the novel to have a sense of intrigue from the outset, to make readers aware that they would be entering into a story which builds towards a tragedy—that way, I hoped I could engage them in the task of wondering “who?” and “why?” as each chapter layers and unfolds. One of the central conflicts in the book is between faith and doubt; because of this, I wanted the readers’ expectations, empathies, and opinions to fluctuate throughout the novel: Do they trust Eden and believe his claims? Do they side with Iris? Or do they hold on to Oscar’s reasoned viewpoint? The best way I could think of doing this was to provide an early glimpse of darkness in the opening scene; this way, shadows would loom over certain characters in the lighter sections.
Q. First novels, especially ones as ambitious and complex as yours, typically take a long time to write. Did you revise The Bellwether Revivals a great deal?
I am the kind of writer who is constantly reworking the scene I wrote the day before, line by line, word by word, until it finally sets. So, in that sense, I was constantly revising the novel throughout. I finished the first draft in three years, and there was an extra year of refining the manuscript before it was accepted for publication. Then another four or five months of fine–tuning with editorial feedback—it takes a long time before you can let go of it, and I’m not sure you ever really do.
Q. Did you plot out the novel before you began or let it lead you once you started writing?
I didn’t go as far as plotting the precise dimensions of the novel, scene for scene, but I was always aware of where the characters’ actions were going to lead them. I’m a big believer in three–act structure, so I kept a wall chart (really, it was just the reverse of a Bruce Springsteen poster) near my desk, which showed the dramatic arc of the plot and the key climactic moments I wanted to build towards. The scenes between these key moments were arrived at without much foresight. Herbert Crest, for instance, was a character who was never part of my original conception for the book—he just appeared on the page one morning and, once he had, the whole story found its anchor.
Q. Is there something inherently fascinating/troubling about triangles in human relationships—like that between Oscar, Iris, and Eden? What engaged you about that particular triangle?
Well, conflict is intrinsic to such triangles—I think that’s why writers are drawn to them, and why readers find them so rewarding. When characters’ motivations clash, when their intentions are obstructed or obscured by those of another character, it can make for explosive results (especially when the reader is rooting for a certain character and wants him/her to get what he/she wants in the end). I think the Oscar– Eden–Iris triangle has a range of conflicts within it—sibling rivalry, jealousy, class tensions, intellectual differences, romantic interests, ego battles—which is why I enjoyed writing their characters so much.
Q. Does the conflict between scientific and religious ways of understanding the world hold a special relevance for you? What drew you to write this story?
It holds no special relevance to me other than being a subject I’m deeply interested in. I’m a believer in the logic and empiricism of science as a rule, and I’m not a religious person, but somehow I find myself at odds with the current scientific conception of human consciousness. I was drawn to writing a story that explored the territory between these two faiths—spiritual faith versus faith in science—because I think that both sides can be too blithely disregarding and dismissive of the other. Creativity and artistic ability are things that science has thus far been unable to provide a convincing explanation for, and I find that aspect of the debate utterly fascinating. Eden Bellwether is an extension of that fascination.
Q. In terms of music theory, Iris is a cognitivist and Eden an emotivist. Which camp would you place yourself in? Is there an equivalent aesthetic divide among contemporary novelists?
I don’t know if I’d place myself in either camp, as such—I don’t really like to apply terms of categorization to art, or to align with any particular school of thought. Certainly, I believe the elements of music can be manipulated by a composer to achieve certain emotional effects, but whether those decisions are made consciously or unconsciously by the composer, I’m still not sure. Mozart and Beethoven could write music with profound (and diverse) emotional power, but I don’t know if they conceived of it in a measured way or just instinctively. All I know is, the sadness I feel when I hear a sad song is genuine sadness, not simply awe at the beauty of the music itself. I’m sure there are similarly divergent aesthetic approaches in contemporary literature—realism versus magic realism, etc.—but I think these terms are usually applied by critics and English academics, rather than by writers themselves. The best writers, in my opinion, are those who write the kinds of stories they are compelled to.
Q. What is your personal opinion of alternative therapies—art therapy, music therapy, etc.?
Oh, I’d like to plead the fifth on this, if I may. It only matters what the characters believe and what the readers believe. All I will say is that music possesses such unique and mysterious qualities that more work should be done to understand its effects on us. But this is rather complicated by the conflicts of faith discussed above.
Q. What is your view of the relationship between genius and madness, creativity and mental instability?
I don’t believe you have to be mentally unstable to be a genius, but looking back through history, there seems to be a tradition of association between the two states of being. Radical thoughts often come from untamed minds, but I’m sure they also come from focused ones.
Q. Brideshead Revisited would seem a likely influence for The Bellwether Revivals. Is Waugh an important writer for you? What other writers have been most crucial in your development?
It’s a shameful thing to admit as a British writer, but I hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited until I’d finished the first draft of The Bellwether Revivals. Of course, it’s a terrific novel with wonderful characters, and its appeal has endured for many years, so I am honored when people mention the Bellwethers in the same sentence. At the same time, I hope readers will view my book as possessing its own distinctive qualities. There are many British writers whose work I revere—Graham Greene, John Fowles, V. S. Pritchett, Iris Murdoch among them—but my reading tastes have always been more attuned to American writing. I can’t help but refer to writers such as Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Patricia Highsmith, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner. These are the authors I would point to as direct influences.
Q. What are you working on now?
Another novel. I tend to be secretive about things I’m working on, because (a) I’m an unbearably paranoid control freak, and (b) I like to give the characters the privacy to define themselves before I go advertising their names and particulars. I can say that the next book is likely to inquire into metaphysical and philosophical ideas, in a similar vein as The Bellwether Revivalsbut it will cover very different territory. I’m excited to be in the company of a new set of characters again; it’s fun to carry them around in my head wherever I go.
Posted September 22, 2012
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Posted June 26, 2012
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