The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals from British author Benjamin Wood starts off explosively with “the caterwaul of sirens,” “blue lights,” and three bodies. One of the three bodies–a man who’s “still breathing, but faintly,” is named while the other two are not. Activity swirls around these three bodies about to be taken away by ambulance, while another character, Oscar, smokes and other unnamed people “bicker” about blame and guilt. Something terrible has taken place, and then the rest of the novel goes back in time and leads back up to this event.

The main character of the novel is Oscar Lowe, a twenty-year-old care assistant at the Cedarbrook nursing home. Oscar enjoys his job, and even has a favourite patient, Dr. Paulsen, a former English professor who struggles to maintain his dignity in the nursing home by keeping some distance from the other residents and the management’s degrading schedule. The former educator in Dr. Paulsen recognises that Oscar is intelligent and underemployed, and he takes a personal interest in Oscar, lending him books from his library. Due to an absence of parental support, Oscar was unable to attend university, and yet here he lives in Cambridge, a university town surrounded by people his age who are fortunate enough to have that option.

One night, on his way home from work, cutting through the grounds at King’s College, Oscar is drawn to stop and listen to an organist playing within the chapel, and it’s here he meets Iris Bellwether, an attractive medical student and her charismatic brother, Eden who is the organist. Oscar is swiftly drawn into the world of the privileged Bellwethers, and as someone who works for a living–and humbly at that–Oscar’s position as the only person in the Bellwether’s circle who is not attending university is, at times, extremely uncomfortable.

There is a part of Oscar that is enamoured with and irresistibly drawn to the glamour of the Bellwethers:

They were the kind of sophisticated people his father never let him be friends with when he was younger–‘the high and mighty crowd,’ his father called them, the ones who lived in the detached houses out in Cassiobury. Oscar would see them in the wing mirror of his father’s van, wandering home from the grammar school in their smart black blazers; the kids whose parents his father built extensions for, but with whom he was too proud to share a cup of tea after a day’s work, fearing their good crockery and their vast, expensive kitchens. Now here he was, holding his own amongst the same type of people.

But does Oscar really manage to ‘hold his own?’ He’s certainly attracted to the Bellwethers and their privileged lifestyle, and he’s flattered to be included in Iris and Eden’s intimate circle of friends. Yet there’s something inherently unhealthy afoot. When Oscar is invited to spend an evening with the Bellwethers, he feels out of place:

One school story was regaled with another, and for the first time all night, Oscar began to feel genuinely excluded. He was drawn to the urbaneness of their lives, their refinement and culture, but he just couldn’t find a way into their discussion no matter how hard he tried to interject. They were pulling memories from a private source, from some reservoir of experiences, they’d all shared.

The fact that Oscar is enamoured with the Bellwether’s lifestyle and rapidly falls in love with Iris explains why he starts taking no small amount of crap from Eden.

The inclusion of the word “revivals” in the title gives a clue to the substance of the novel. Eden believes that he is a faith healer of sorts and he claims to ‘heal’ through hypnosis and the power of music. The difference between Eden and let’s say Aimee Semple McPherson is that while the latter drew large audiences, Eden’s audience is his intimate circle of friends, and that circle now somewhat uncomfortably includes Oscar through his growing relationship with Iris.

The Bellwether’s intimate group of friends (Marcus, Yin, and Eden’s girlfriend, Jane) who are “like a family” find Eden to be charismatic, compelling, and they very consciously and unhealthily yield a leadership role to him, yet privately Iris expresses concerns about Eden’s mental health and asks Oscar to help her gather proof that her brother needs psychiatric help. Gradually Oscar finds himself drawn deeper into the Bellwether’s circle, and rather interestingly, Oscar’s other life–his life at Cedarbrook begins to connect with Eden’s shady activities.

In order for the novel to work, it’s essential that Oscar’s continued involvement with the Bellwethers is believable. I had a slight problem with this as I would have cut and run after the first night, but Oscar, in spite of strong reservations about Eden’s insufferable behaviour, goes back for more. This is explained by three elements: Oscar’s relationship with Iris, his attraction to the Bellwether’s cachet and finally the much more complex reason that there’s an appeal to his ego–Oscar’s involvement with the Bellwether circle and his quest to help Iris takes him beyond the boundaries of his routine at Cedarbrook.

Blurbs for the book call The Bellwether Revivals part Secret History, part Brideshead Revisited.” I haven’t read the former, although Kevin From Canada has, so read his review here. I have read Brideshead Revisited and a comparison to Evelyn Waugh’s book will, I think, set any potential readers on the wrong path. Certainly there are echoes of that sort of moneyed privilege which brings forth a sense of utter righteousness, but that’s about as far as it goes. 

The novel’s strength is in its depiction of the dual response outsider Oscar has to the Bellwethers. While he’s impressed with their magnificent house, there’s something downright unpleasant about them:

The truth was, Oscar wasn’t sure if he liked her parents at all. They had that impossible confidence that comes from wealth, the self-righteousness that comes from piety. How many times had he spoken to Ruth Bellwether, only to have her blinking back at him silently, showing no sign that she’d even been listening.

While Oscar’s continued involvement with the Bellwethers is believable, the book is light on its treatment of the other people in the group, so consequently these characters feel contrived. Not too huge a problem but with the insufferably arrogant Eden acting as a centripetal force on the small “flock” (as the circle is called), some extra explanation of the character weakness of the others involved is necessary. Since the story opens with its ending, the emphasis is not on what happened, but how it happened, how events went as far as they did, and whether this train wreck could have been prevented.

Review copy from publisher

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11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Wood Benjamin

11 responses to “The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

  1. Reading your review I’m not sure how I would like this. I loved The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited but they are very different. It’s always problematic to compare a novel to such books.

    • I can understand the point of referring to other books in reviews and on jacket covers, but I don’t know that they do much of a favour to the author under comparison. In this case, the novel is a debut book, so it’s probably an attempt to get an audience for the author since there’s no name recognition (yet).

  2. leroyhunter

    I’ve always thought about reading The Secret History without ever doing so, so I guess it means this one is pretty unlikely for me.

  3. I loved The Secret History and yes, what you describe reminds me of this novel.

    I also thought about The Line of Beauty because of the difficulty from someone of the working class to mingle into upper classes.

  4. Emma and Leroy: I suspect, but I’m probably wrong, that the book might have an appeal to the younger audience. This thought came up at several points as I read the novel. Perhaps it’s the structure–we know something bad has happened and then we are Oscar’s companions to the disaster that takes place. Perhaps you have to be a younger person to go along with that as when we are a little older most of us have run into troubled individuals and have the good sense to step away. Oscar doesn’t.

    It’s not the same moral erosion we see in The Line of Beauty (and people are never beyond succumbing to that sort of business), this is a novel of experience and inexperience. Someone more experienced than Oscar would have walked away.

    I took a look at the reviews on goodreads and there are plenty of 5 star reviews there–people who loved the book, but then are people like me who liked it but weren’t wowed.

  5. This is a novel that for me has not aged very well in the few months since I read it — I needed your review to remind me just what had happened. I think the reason can be found in your concluding paragraphs pointing to the relative under-development of all the characters except Oscar, an opinion that I share. While the author does a good job of developing the class tension, for the book to succeed he also needs to develop the “set” as an ensemble of realized characters — Eden in particular needs to be as complete in his way as Oscar is in his and that simply doesn’t happen. Iris is used mainly as a kind of glue to hold the plot together and the others are very shallow. All of which yields, as you note, to lead the reader to wonder “why doesn’t Oscar just avoid this bunch?” Obviously, Wood intends us to think he is powerfully fascinated by them, but, like you, I can’t figure out why.

    On the comparisons front, I do think Tartt did a better job of character balance in The Secret History and that Brideshead Revisited is in a whole different league of both story and quality — the marketing department did author Wood no favor in reaching for that comparison.

    • My main draw to the book was the reference to Waugh, and I think that I’m not the right reader for the book. That brings me back to the age issue–many, many readers on goodreads loved the book, so this possibly for a younger audience? What do you think Kevin?

  6. You might be on the right track with younger readers. Where I find Marcus and Yin shallow for example, someone of a different generation might well respond “hey, I know someone just like that”. And I suspect someone who was recently at college (or still there) would also find versions of Eden and Iris in their world view. I certainly did not find it a bad novel, I just thought it could be more — which is hardly a damning critique of a debut book. Even that fact that it has a U.S. release is an indication that publishers certainly see something in it.

    • I agree with you. taking a look at goodreads reveals no shortage of enthusiastic readers. The reference to Wuagh draws in a different crowd, and I expected something different.

  7. Brideshead and Secret History have nothing much to do with each other, and it sounds like this hasn’t much in common with either.

    Underdeveloped characters is a serious flaw in a whydunnit. In a whodunnit it’s less of an issue, but whydunnit’s are by their nature more literary, and character becomes essential (Loving Roger, by Tim Parks, being a great example of one that works).

    The setup reminds me of a darker version of Whit Stillman’s rather marvellous film Metropolitan. Have you seen that?

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