Review: The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

I have been wanting to read this book foooooooreeeeeeeveeeeer. I mean, ever since I heard of it. The plot is that this carer, Oscar Lowe, is walking through Cambridge one day and is lured into a church by the sounds of heavenly organ music. In short order he falls in love with the organist’s sister Iris, from whom he eventually learns that the organist himself, Eden, believes that he has the power to heal people with music, maybe even to bring them back from the dead. Or, in the short version of this synopsis, everyone’s in Cambridge doing creepy experiments. HOORAY.

The (better) American cover

The Bellwether Revivals is a case where my love for this type of genre — a group of friends, one who feels like an outsider in particular, coming to realize that there’s Danger in their Midst, and maybe Impending Doom — blinded me to the book’s flaws, and then when I sat down to write about it I talked myself out of it more and more. So let me start by saying what was good about the book:

I liked that Eden Bellwether, while he does do some quite sinister things over the course of the novel, doesn’t especially come across as dangerous. He believes that he can compose and play music that will have healing powers, healing anything from a cut hand to a broken leg to, possibly, a brain tumor. The scenes where he does this — carefully documented on camera as a good horror film would! — are wonderfully restrained. There are no incantations, just the playing of music and the laying on of hands. But there is, nevertheless, an air of menace about the whole thing, and about Eden. Though nothing particularly terrible happens, the reader feels that something has to, and will, give.

Very good indeed were the scenes with the Bellwether parents. Like many of the secondary characters — about whom more in a minute — they are poorly fleshed out as people. Still, the scenes where Oscar attends meals with them are deliciously uncomfortable in the way that it really is uncomfortable to eat dinner with someone else’s family when that family is weird in a way that’s completely unfamiliar to you. These scenes aren’t a major part of the novel.  I just liked them every time they showed up.

I’d have loved to have seen more stuff about the research done by Dr. Paulsen — one of Oscar’s patients at the care facility where he works — and Dr. Crest. The book didn’t need this to improve it. I just really liked Paulsen and Crest a lot. I liked it that they were both straightforward people who also had things to keep to themselves. Where many of the other secondary characters seemed to exist as satellites for the primary folks, Paulsen and Crest felt like they might realistically have lives outside of the Bellwethers.

Which brings me to the criticisms! Here they come. One, the secondary characters are barely people. Eden and Iris have three friends called Yin, Marcus, and Jane, who get a few nice descriptions — I quite liked this one of Jane —

She had a knack for diffusing the tension in a room. Oscar could see what the others liked about her: she was self-deprecating, constantly downplaying her intelligence and positioning herself as the slowest member of the group, when she might well have been the brightest of them all. She had a sense of humour that seemed naive, but he recognised it as something more than that. It was her way of forging her own identity within the group: an endearing, calculated dumbness.

–but who aren’t well-realized overall. At the end of the book I saw no reason for Oscar to keep hanging out with them, except that they had accepted him generously as an adjunct to their group. I couldn’t see what they had in common, because I didn’t know anything about them as people.

Another difficulty about the book is that you never want to believe in Eden. The author does a nice job letting you sit with the possibility that Eden can genuinely use music to heal people, although I think it’s ultimately made clear that he can’t and is nuts, but what you want — because it’s what Oscar wants — is to find out that Eden is nuts and see him get help. It would have been a much much more interesting book if Eden had spent more time engaging Oscar and trying to make him believe in what he can do.

What is that now? You think I am just saying that because it’s what Henry from The Secret History does so spectacularly well with Richard? NONSENSE. Except, yeah. That’s why I’m saying that. The Secret History is amazing, and its amazingness consists in how much you want to get behind Henry even though you know that buying into his version of events would make you sort of a sociopath.

On that note, who’s excited for Night Film? I mean The Goldfinch? Who’s excited for both? I am! 2013 is such an amazing year for books! So many authors beloved by me are publishing new books.

17 thoughts on “Review: The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

  1. You know, I really didn’t care for The Secret History, and I also really didn’t care for Special Topics in Calamity Physics. But practically every time I read this blog, you make me want to go back and rethink my position, even though I’m pretty super darn sure. You are very convincing about the books you like, Other Jenny!

    • My mother didn’t like The Secret History one bit. And although I still cannot understand why — because I just love it SO MUCH — I recognize that not all books are for all people. I just sometimes wish that The Secret History was for all people. I love it that much.

  2. First off, what a great way to describe the conflict of The Secret History–I’d never thought about it just like that, but you really do want to believe in Henry, to the point where you try like hell to make his actions make sense. Which is a very useful mental place to be able to recognize in the real world, when someone you think is solid does something incomprehensible.

    Also, thank you for the info on Tartt’s new book! I have no idea how I missed that! Though I really hated The Little Friend, and I’m skeptical of her next one, I’m excited to know about it. Can’t wait to read your review.

    • Yes! It’s the sneaky insidious way Donna Tartt makes you realize why Richard goes along with this patently insane stuff that happens.

      I hated The Little Friend too. I’m trying to regulate my expectations for her third novel. But I want it to be good so much!

  3. I have this book to read! So basically I read all the good things you had to say about it but skipped the criticisms. Otherwise it may disappear down the mountainous pile never to be seen again. Still, the good things are encouraging, and I really must try to get to it soon.

    • Hahahaha, I understand the impulse to skate over the bad things. It’s still an enjoyable book, even with flaws — I didn’t start thinking of the criticisms until after I’d finished reading.

  4. This sounds like an awesome book for a dark & stormy day. I’m excited. Except I’m also excited for The Goldfinch, and if that comes out first before I have a good rainy day to read, I might read that instead.

  5. I’m reading a book that’s possibly similar in that character-notices-weirdness way, and it really does stop you from looking at it objectively. I’m hoping that, like you, I’ll be able to be critical once I’ve finished it. Considering all that, Bellwether really appeals to me, even if your criticisms sound like they’d become irritations whilst reading. The only thing I’d wonder is whether you’re *supposed* to know those secondary characters – I guess it depends on whether they are good or not, and not having read it I of course can’t say.

    • Well, the reason I thought we were “supposed” to be able to know the secondary characters is that the protagonist had clearly become friends with them. It wasn’t a perfect friendship, but it was there. And I just felt like, if he’s friends with them it must be for some reason, and I never knew what the reason might be.

  6. Figured I linger on your blog since I stopped in for Harry Potter stuff. 🙂

    I read this book on vacation last year and it was a real struggle to finish. One of those books I somehow convinced myself was just on the verge of getting better but which never did. Now Donna Tartt on the other hand–LOVED the Secret History, not so much little friend. Waiting to get my hands on the new one. Maybe come BEA the publisher will have galleys to distribute?

    • Oh yeah, The Little Friend wasn’t any good for me at all. I wanted to love it because I loved The Secret History, and it let me way way down. I’m trying not to expect too much from the new one! I don’t want my expectations to be dashed again.

  7. Have you heard about the series coming to PBS called the Bletchley Circle? (or something like that) It’s about a group of women in post-WWII Britain who solve crimes (crimes qualify a Danger in their Midst, right?)! I think you would like it based on the above. Well – I think you would like it based on the PREMISE. I have not yet seen the series so cannot vouch for it, but, come on, it’s bound to be good, right?

  8. I love the cover of this book, but I don’t think I’d heard of it before seeing your review. I wonder sometimes if we convince ourselves that we like a book more than we did, or even the reverse sometimes. I read a book that actually kept putting me literally to sleep, but I still have to give it a good review, because it was a harder book than what I’ve been reading lately so I feel like it was my own failing not the book’s. But maybe my feeling that way is just because I bought a signed copy from the author!

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