Genre: Literary Fiction
For fans of: Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, J.D. Salinger
He was not ashamed of where he was from, but he didn’t want to go back there. These were the poles of his heart. He could no more explain them to Iris than he could resolve them.
For such a raved about book it was extremely difficult to track down Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals (especially when you’ve banned yourself from buying books online!), but I did finally unearth a copy in a sequestered corner of my local Waterstones. In fact, it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that I held it in a bear grip until I reached the till…
Our protagonist is Oscar, a retirement home carer who one day finds himself drawn into a chapel, moved by the sound of organ music coming from within. While there he’s soon seduced by the quiet beauty of Cambridge medical student Iris and quickly finds himself ingratiated among her university friends and more crucially, her musical protegee/organ playing brother Eden.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Eden isn’t just a proud virtuoso when one evening he decides the best way to persuade Oscar of his righteous beliefs in the healing power of music is to stick a nail through his hand(!). At the same time Iris and Oscar embark on their relationship, they agree to help Iris find evidence to support her fears that her brother isn’t as sound in mind as he thinks. Events quickly escalate once they enlist the help of a prominent psychologist, yet little do they know that their project will have irredeemable consequences for all involved…
They were pulling memories from a private source, from some reservoir of experiences they’d all shared.
So I can’t pinpoint any one element that makes this book great…it’s simply brilliant. From the moment Oscar meets Iris you too are sucked into the Bellwethers’ intimate world. Just like Oscar you feel bewildered by their privileged way of life and their (mostly) unchallenged acceptance of Eden’s extreme personality and beliefs.
The Bellwether Revivals’ beauty also lies in the depth of thought that’s gone into these characters – Oscar feels completely real and fleshed out while the relationship between the Bellwethers and their friends seems complex, almost tangible – partly due to Benjamin Wood’s wonderfully evocative style of writing. It’s got such a flow to it and is so nuanced that by the end of the novel you almost feel that subconsciously you knew what was going to happen – simply because no other ending would fit.
Although, just like Oscar you can’t accept the fact that Eden possesses this impossible power to heal people, there’s always a niggling voice in the back of your mind wondering whether it could all actually be true. This is a common feeling throughout the book – it’s rare that we’re ever explicitly told what’s going on – and it’s brilliant. There is a particularly powerful passage that I can’t get out of my mind in which Wood hints at the nature of Oscar’s relationship with his father:
It was in his mind now: that horrible banging of the back door latch, loud as a gunshot; a gust sweeping right through the house as his father arrived home. Then the urgent thump of his father’s feet on the stairs […]
And the ending – the ending is so devastatingly beautiful (and unexpected) that you’ll feel like you’ve been dealt a blow. I promise you’ll be left reeling just as much as Oscar and his friends are.
The Bellwether Revivals has easily secured a spot in my all-time favourite novels and with a film adaptation in the works it seems like perfect timing! I must admit that it left me in a bit of a book slump for a couple of days as it felt like whatever I read next simply wouldn’t measure up! Needless to say, I’ve already acquired a copy of Benjamin Wood’s latest release – The Ecliptic – and I’ll be losing myself in that pretty soon. I feel like I can’t do The Bellwether Revivals justice in this review but I guarantee if you like The Secret History (or just great literary fiction) you’ll want to meet Oscar and the Bellwethers.