Saturday 13 April 2013

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Every so often you come across a book that grabs you from the first sentence and all day, wherever you are or whatever you're doing you're thinking about when you can snatch a few minutes to read some more. It was like this for me with Benjamin Wood's debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals.
    Which is interesting when you consider that this is one of those books that begins with its ending, an event that looks bad - at least one dead body, and another person being given oxygen by paramedics, while Oscar, our young protagonist says: 'It's over now.' It's a grim scene, but mercifully short, and a couple of pages later we're at the beginning, being gradually led into Oscar's world, his work at Cedarbrook, where he's a carer for the elderly and infirm, and his passion for the town he has adopted as his own - Cambridge.
    He's walking home one night, when he is drawn by organ music into a service at King's College Chapel. Further along his pew is a beautiful girl whom he chats to afterwards. Before long he is immersed into the world of Iris Bellwether and her brother Eden, the talented organist.
    Iris is a med student, her brother studying music and both come from a well-to-do background in contrast to Oscar's working class roots. If you think Iris is lining him up as her 'bit of rough', though, that really isn't the case either, because Oscar is a reader. He borrows books, one at a time, from Dr Paulsen, his favourite patient at Cederbrook. When he meets Iris and Eden he's studying Descartes.
   The Bellwethers turn out to be a little dysfunctional. The father is hard on Iris and spoils Eden; the mother is remote and self-absorbed. Eden has that dangerous mix of genius and madness - he dabbles in a kind of musical hypnotism, which he believes can be used to cure people and likes to experiment - no wonder he's pleased to invite Oscar to a little party. And no wonder Iris comes to depend on Oscar - he's sensible, caring and self-reliant.
    Meanwhile Dr Paulsen receives a letter from the love of his life, the renown psychologist, Herbert Crest. Paulsen has every one of Crest's books and Oscar becomes engrossed in one which concerns a personality disorder that seems very like Eden's. Soon Iris and Oscar are hatching a plan to do help Eden before he does something really dangerous. Can Crest be convinced to help them?
    We know the story of the Bellwethers is headed for disaster, but somehow the book is no less fascinating for it. Perhaps this is because the characterisation  is so good - Eden's ebullient German friend, Marcus, and the easy-going American, Yin, are superb foils for the uptight Bellwethers. Their witty interactions remind you that most people are, in fact, generally normal. The story of a young man making his way in an alien environment, in this case a world of the privileged and dazzlingly clever, is a classic story that we never seem to tire of. Benjamin Wood however manages to make his version original. A finalist in the last Costa Awards, I bet I am not the only one to be including The Bellwether Revivals in my list of best books for the year.

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