A few missed chords.
Comparing a book to Donna Tartt’s 1992 cult classic The Secret History seems to have become one of the publishing industry’s favourite marketing strategies. I don’t know that it’s entirely successful one; I get a little tired of any book involving university students, murder, and dark forays into the past being touted as ‘the next Secret History,’ because it never is. And why should it be? It seems a shame to place such a huge weight of expectation on any book, particularly a debut novel.
Despite this, any comparison to The Secret History usually gets me intrigued—if only because I’m determined to debunk the assumption that someone’s written a similar book and done it better. But when I came across Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, it wasn’t just the inevitable Tartt name-drop on the back cover that piqued my interest, but the plot. Wood blends psychological suspense with a fascinating concept—the idea that music can hypnotise and heal—and sets it against the iconic backdrop of Cambridge University.
Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not you’ve read or care about The Secret History, Wood’s rather weak characterisation lets down what could have been a taut and original thriller. While the novel’s premise is strong, its execution—like its protagonist—doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions.
When we first meet twenty-year-old Oscar Lowe, he’s cutting home through the grounds of King’s College, Cambridge, and finds himself drawn into the college chapel by the mesmerising sound of the organ being played from within. This spur-of-the-moment decision causes Oscar to cross paths with the beautiful Iris Bellwether, a cello-playing, clove-smoking medical student, and her eccentric and musically gifted older brother, Eden—the organ player.
Although Oscar isn’t a Cambridge student—he works at an aged care facility, where he sates his intellectual curiosity by devouring the personal library of his favourite patient, a retired English professor—he quickly becomes part of Iris and Eden’s tight-knit circle, and begins a relationship with Iris.
Things take a strange turn when Eden, whose incredible musical ability seems directly proportionate to his arrogance, becomes obsessed with conducting a series of bizarre experiments to test his theory that he has the power to heal the sick through music. Iris is torn between believing her brother and fearing that he might be suffering from delusions; Oscar, who grows increasingly wary of Eden’s strange behaviour, begins to investigate. But can he uncover the truth before Eden’s obsession spirals out of control?
The question of whether Eden is truly capable of what he claims, or simply treading the fine line between madness and genius, effectively propels the action of the novel. Just when you think you’ve reached a solid conclusion, Wood throws a spanner in the works and forces you to re-evaluate. It’s a guessing game until the final tense few chapters, and Wood skilfully integrates complex ideas about madness, reason, and faith into the story.
But he’s less skilled at crafting believable and sympathetic characters, and this weakens the entire enterprise. I felt as though I’d read about these people before, and lord knows I didn’t enjoy them the first time (or the second, or the third…you get the idea). Iris, Eden, their rather stiff parents, and their rich Cambridge friends—Marcus, Yin, and Eden’s long suffering girlfriend, Jane—feel faintly caricatured and flat: they’re well-meaning but privileged, cushioned by the benefit of their wealth, class, and education. While Wood obviously intended to depict a tight-knit group of young intellectuals who are just as likely to spend the night getting drunk as they are discussing ‘the obsolescence of celluloid film and the soulless digitisation of photography’ and French arthouse cinema, it soon starts to feel clichéd and lazy. Inevitably, Oscar is cast as the fish-out-of-water, a young working class lad who aspires to intellectual brilliance but can’t quite get past the sense that he’ll never fit in with his wealthy new friends.
Although Wood writes well, some of his prose is a little awkward—the name ‘Iris Bellwether’ looks strange to Oscar when he sees it in print, ‘like a lorry hauling its load across the motorway’; when he and Iris listen to a CD of supposedly beautiful choir music, the voices ‘cleaved through the dusty air of his flat, swarming around them like seagulls above a shipwreck.’ I’m not sure that fans of the King’s College choir typically liken them to screeching birds.
Wood builds to a gripping conclusion, but there are too many lingering questions at the novel’s close. I’ve got nothing against loose narrative threads—tying everything up too neatly can feel pat, and sometimes a little mystery gives you something to think about long after you’ve turned a book’s final page. But The Bellwether Revivals seems to run out of steam after Eden’s actions come to a head, as though Wood simply wasn’t sure how to fit the final pieces of the puzzle in place.
This is probably a harsher review than I intended—I still found this an engaging read. The blurb’s claim that the it will ‘appeal to fans of Donna Tartt and Ian McEwan’ isn’t far off the mark, although I don’t think the book is dark or ambitious enough to match either of those authors. The Bellwether Revivals is a compelling but flawed first novel with a refreshingly original conceit, and I’ll be interested to see what Wood comes up with next.