The Bellwether Revivals
Benjamin Wood
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Buy *The Bellwether Revivals* by Benjamin Wood online

The Bellwether Revivals
Benjamin Wood
432 pages
June 2012
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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A superb storyteller, Wood writes a chilling state-of-the-art novel set in the modern-day academic world of Cambridge and revolving around the healing power of music, the effects of existential madness, and the collateral damage of a thwarted love affair. In The Bellwether Revivals, the tension is always near the surface, providing an increasing sense of menace to the everyday lives of the characters.

Into this rarefied world of entrenched snobbery comes Oscar Lowe. Born of working-class parents in Watford, Oscar now works at Cedarbrook, a wisteria-covered nursing home on Queens Road, just a minute or two from the grand and salubrious Kings College. Oscar’s dreams of a college education have not exactly shriveled on the branch of life’s blunders, but over time they have eroded, even solidified into something that seems so out of reach from his boyish, naive anticipations.

Wood’s story unfolds in a transcendent mixture of confidence and fear, humility and clear-eyed self-assessment. Amid the chapel spire shadows, Oscar meets Iris Bellwether and sees in her a “pedigree” and “unashamed intelligence.” With a sunny temperament and her wealthy, devoted parents to guide her, Iris is in the first lush of youthful enthusiasm. From the moment that Oscar meets her, he’s besotted with this strange and pretty girl smelling of clove and bergamot and carrying a battered copy of Descartes.

When Oscar accepts Iris’s invitation to her chamber group, he’s plunged into the everyday lives of Iris’s fellow Cambridge students. Yin, Jane, and Marcus each inhabit a mysterious world of high-minded discussions and easy laughter. As Oscar listens to their anecdotes about the midnight bridge club and the chorister programs, the group provides an easy camaraderie that makes him feel more alive than he could ever have possibly imagined growing up in Watford.

The tension of the novel begins instantly when Iris’s troubled brother Eden experiments on Oscar. Trapped within his cold, placid exterior, Eden exhorts the manipulative power of music, modeling his "healing therapy” on Johann Mattheson, a legendary German composer and theorist. In this closeted, privileged world where music and emotions resemble each other, Oscar eventually goes ballistic, the emotions of relief and incredulity catapulting him into a relationship with the Bellwether family that no amount of animosity can erode.

Oscar’s starry-eyed search for acceptance, which we know from the beginning of the book, will become distorted and obscured by the fact that the class-conscious Bellwethers will need to hide certain things. Eden’s arrogant narcissism and selfishness are juxtaposed with Oscar’s feelings of failure, ineptitude, and the notion that he’s been living “the unremarkable life” that his parents had always expected from him.

The austere grey buildings of Magdalene College stand proudly, and everywhere that Oscar turns, the college and its pristine lawns are always in his peripheral vision, lurking with pressing need. Looking back from the gray sobriety at story’s end, we see the ramifications of Eden’s need to playact his desires, Oscar’s growing passion for Iris, and the desperation of Dr. Paulsen’s best friend, Herbert Crest, who with his gaunt face and dark swollen eyes knows that Eden is very ill and that something terrible is going to happen because everyone is allowing Eden to think he possesses some godly powers to heal the sick.

Wood’s grand, gothic story is about how we see through the eyes of the people we don't know and how they project their thoughts onto what they are told. In a taut rhythm that exposes all of our human weaknesses, the story unfolds within the context of a collection of damaged spirits who must learn to heal through the fiery light of a steadfast, trustful, doomed kind of love.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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