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.