on June 20, 2012
The Bellwether Revivals is one of the best, most breathtaking books I've read in a while. Full of rich details and perfect pacing for the harrowing conclusion, I pored over each sentence with increasing fascination that such a young author could have such command over his story. Often, I found myself referring back to the short prelude, thinking, "A-ha, now I'm starting to see how the characters got to this very strange place."
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.
on May 17, 2012
Every once in a while I'll start to read a book and within just a few minutes, I'll get goosebumps. That happened to me with The Bellwether Revivals - and honestly, I was surprised by it.
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 premise of this story is very interesting and this could have been a really engaging novel, however there is a glaring lack of consistency, an overall unevenness to the quality of the story, as well as the writing. The whole story has a very forced feeling, the progression of relationships, the way the characters related to one another, the dialogue, the timing of events, it all felt very contrived.
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.
on October 5, 2013
On the way home after his shift at the care home where he worked as a nurse's assistant, 20-year-old Oscar Lowe wandered into a chapel on the grounds of Cambridge University one day to listen to the organ music. After the service, as young men often do, he began chatting with an attractive young woman, Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden was the organist. From such chance meetings do lives change.
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.
on June 1, 2013
Very occasionally, I come across a book that unexpectedly tears my heart out, rearranges its contents, and gives it to me back bruised but recharged. A little bit of spiritual resuscitation that knocks the clutter about and awakens a different perspective. This is such an exquisite thing - and one of the primary reasons I read. The Bellwether Revivals probably isn't going to be transformative in my life in a lasting way, but this temporary ground-shift is a literary high. It keeps me coming back for more even as I regroup from being laid flat.
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.
on July 25, 2012
A sophisticated and subtly complex debut novel by Benjamin Wood, The Bellwether Revivals begins with a house full of dead bodies and a severely injured young man named Eden Bellwether. The story then pulls back to a few months prior so the reader can try to figure out how it all led up to that point. The character of Eden Bellwether is presented as an arrogant, charismatic but sinister Cambridge student who is obsessed with philosophy and music theory, but even more obsessed with himself. He leads his sister, Iris, and a small group of loyal friends further into his own cult of self, while Iris's new boyfriend Oscar--a townie--observes with discomfort and concern. Can Eden be trusted? Does he have special healing powers, as he claims, or is he perhaps mentally ill? And why does everyone around him seem to bend to his will?
In some ways the novel is one large extended metaphor. A bellwether sheep is the lead sheep in a flock, the one a shepherd would traditionally fit with a bell so that he would always know where the flock was, since whither the bellwether goes there go the sheep. Eden Bellwether is clearly the leader of his flock, so much so that his friends even refer to themselves as the "little flock." But I wonder if Benjamin Wood's bellwether metaphor goes a little deeper than just the behaviour of field sheep. There was a science fiction novel published in 1997 called Bellwether, by Connie Willis, in which a sociologist studies fads and chaos theory and uses the bellwether sheep as a model for studying how people follow trends (following a human bellwether).
What made me think of this was the curious lack of references to technology fads that would have been popular in 2003 when the story takes place. None of the characters have MP3 players, for instance, even though they are all extremely privileged university students. Instead they have stacks of CDs, walkmans (walkmans!) and "ghetto blasters" (a term I hadn't heard since the 80s). They rarely use their cellphones, never text each other, don't mention laptops and rely on answering machines (the kinds that beep, like in movies from the 1980s!). It just seemed inconceivable to me that rich university kids would go without any of the tech trends of their time, so I had to wonder if the anachronism was intentional. Was the author trying to draw our attention to the fact that these kids followed Eden so completely that they only did what he did, only followed the trends he followed? Or was it just a way to make the novel seem slightly old-fashioned--or perhaps timeless--like it was set in the idyllic 1950s that never really was? Was England behind the trend in technology in 2003? Or was I just reading far too much into it, (much like the characters themselves might do)?
In any case, the book is hard to put down and is satisfying on every level, whether there is deeper metaphor intended or not. It's like The Talented Mr. Ripley meets We Need to Talk About Kevin. Plus it's set partly in Grantchester, which made me wish that Sidney Chambers could have just swooped in and saved the day for all involved.
For more reviews, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
on July 6, 2012
Benjamin Wood makes a bold move in his debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals - he begun at the end. When I read the prologue and saw that he was telling the reader what to expect in the end, I was a little curious to see if I'd be able to see through the mystery or not. I was pleasantly surprised with the result.
The Bellwether Revivals is the story of Oscar, a young caregiver at a retirement home in Cambridge, who stumbles across Eden and Iris Bellwether along with their friends, Jane, Marcus and Yin. When Oscar and Iris start dating, he is drawn into the world of the five scholars who tend to stick to themselves. Eden, a gifted musician and composer seems fixated on the idea that he can heal others through his music. Iris, concerned for her brother's welfare, enlists Oscar's assistance in helping her brother.
The first thing I noticed about this book was the amount of research that went into the story. It's sometimes easy to dump so much information on a reader that it becomes overwhelming, however, the author's decision to allow the reader to gain information through multiple ways - newspaper clippings, dialogue about books, or even simple dialogue explaining theories - worked well together and I never felt overwhelmed by the new information.
While there were a lot of foreign concepts for me - music and hypnotism with a bit of psychology - the prose had an easy flow to it that allowed for the story - though rather dense with detail - to be a quick read. I found it to be well paced and engaging, even though we were told what to expect in the ending. There were lots of great quotes in this book, and even the things that I didn't necessarily agree with were interesting to ponder.
Primarily, what I loved about this story was the fact that it seemed so realistic that I wouldn't have been surprised if I looked up the Bellwethers and found articles about them on the internet. Even the minor characters were so well fleshed out that, as a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to them.
If you love a smart mystery, a book that makes you think, then The Bellwether Revivals is the book for you.
[ARC via Penguin; many thanks]
on August 13, 2012
This book had me at "Part Secret History, part Brideshead Revisited." The Secret History by Donna Tartt is hands down one of my favorite books - it has the perfect blend of academia, creepy siblings, and the elite. With that kind of review, I immediately snagged an e-galley of Bellwether Revivals, but didn't get a chance to actually read it until it had hit the shelves of my library and the cover art caught my eye, leading me back to my Kindle.
Debut novelist Benjamin Wood sets the scene in picturesque Cambridge, moving between the spires and cobbled pathways of King's College and the lush surrounding countryside that holds the family home of the Bellwethers. The book starts near the end of the story, an ending marked with a cold wind blowing through the grounds of the Bellwether Estate, flashing police lights, and bodies, though we don't know whose.
And then, as if we had never been a part of that scene, we're brought back to some previous time, when Oscar, a bookish but working class nurse's assistant stumbles into the lives of the Bellwethers. Lulled into the college chapel by the melodies of an organ unlike any Oscar has ever heard, he meets Iris Bellwether, sister to the organist, Eden. The Bellwethers exist in a world that Oscar has only glimpsed -- one of privilege and academia and, above all, music. The siblings and their small but tight-knit group of friends are similarly intrigued by Oscar's life in all its job-holding, bill-paying, apartment-dwelling glory.
It is music that brings them together, and music that separates the six. Eden falls deeper and deeper into his own obsessions, believing that his organ gives him the ability to perform miracles. I don't want to spoil the ending by revealing much more, but as Eden began his downward spiral, I kept thinking back to the opening scene of the book, wondering when and where those bodies would pop back up.
This novel fits into but also expands what has become a genre, the coming-of-age Gothic sentimental education novel. In this genre, a small, close-knit group of young people, usually students, welcome a newcomer into their midst. The group is strange in some way, the newcomer "normal" or conventional. They don't quite fit into society and perhaps reject it as too boring and limiting. The newcomer wishes to fit into the group and become part of it because these young people have a mysterious allure; their strangeness and outsider nature gives them a sort of glamor - but the strangeness of the group is also dangerous. They feel themselves to be special and exceptional - but perhaps they are just spoiled, indulged, self-absorbed snobs who need a good dose of reality to bring them down to earth.
In this book, Oscar is a working class nursing aide employed in an old age facility in Cambridge, the location of one of Britain's elite universities, full of upper class toffs and intellectuals. He is part of the city, but not part of the university. He feels drawn to that world, but lacks an entry. One day, on his way home, he is drawn into the chapel at Kings College by the haunting sound of organ music. The musician is the strange Eden Bellwether and Oscar also meets his sister Iris, whom one imagines could grave a Neo-raphaelite portrait. Oscar and Iris become lovers but the charismatic, disturbed presence of Eden hangs over their relationship.
Eden believes his organ music can heal people - from flesh wounds, from advanced brain cancer -- even revive them from death. He is suffering, we learn, from some kind of borderline personality disorder, namely Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). But is this a real disease? Might Eden have true powers? What is his delusion if not hope, a delusion that grips us all as humans?
This book is superbly written and tremendously engrossing. The character of Eden is particularly well-drawn. He does not come off as one-dimensional and the writer even manages to convince us that he may well be the sanest character in the book - up to a point. He manages to infect us, his readers, with the same delusion as his central character . We begin to suspect that he really can perform miracles and we begin to hope that everything will somehow come out OK. And yet, we know that Eden is seriously disturbed and dangerous -- and we glimpse from time to time the real menace and evil that lurks within him.
Next to Eden, Iris and Oscar struggle a little to emerge as full-fleshed-out characters. Oscar is level-headed and basically decent; Iris is talented and sweet but has been exposed too long to her brother. A delicate and sweet love begins to blossom between these two - but can it flourish next to the malign influence of Eden? The other friends in the group never emerge as real characters. They are there to make up the numbers.
This book eventually does reach a shattering climax that one doesn't quite see coming -- and yet realizes is inevitable. A truly absorbing novel.
on February 12, 2014
Synopsis: Middle class, nursing assistant Oscar has done something he shouldn't have. He has fallen for an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris. As Iris brings Oscar into her social circle, he is introduced to her musician/therapist brother, Eden. What secrets do Iris and Eden hold? What is their true agenda for bringing the working class Oscar into their midst? Is it for love or something much more sinister?
My rating: 4 Stars
My opinion: I love when I read a debut that is so powerful, so well written, that I will be looking for others by the author. That is what Mr. Wood has provided us. He has provided a mystery that slowly and methodically reveals itself.
Incredibly detailed oriented (a bit too much at times) partnered with fascinating and unique characters made this book difficult for me to put down. To boot, there was a simple poetic nature to the author's writing style that really boosted the book up and had sections of it have a lyrical feeling to the scene descriptions.
The unique storyline and the complexity of the characters was definitely a plus for me. Frequently I can be bored to tears by flat, "single dimensioned" characters. As characters continued to lay out, one has to wonder if the picture they developed in their head is really the correct one.
Source: Penguin Group for review
Would I recommend? : Yes I have, but particularly to those who enjoy British mystery.
Stand Alone or Part of a Series: Stand Alone