There are some lessons publishers never learn. When presenting a new author, editors have long been unable to avoid slipping in a phrase calculated to get up the noses of many in the room: "Of course, it doesn't hurt that he or (she) is very easy on the eye!" Simon & Schuster may not be guilty of such tactics, but that images of Benjamin Wood's beautiful hair and long eyelashes are becoming familiar is probably not regarded as a sales disincentive. But can this Lancashire-born creative-writing lecturer deliver the goods? Is The Bellwether Revivals worthy of the hype?
The novel begins with the discovery of bodies, one of which is on the manicured lawns near the river in Cambridge. Eden Bellwether is still breathing; he has (we will learn) cast a hypnotic spell on a promising working-class student, Oscar. The latter is in love with Eden's equally gilded, aristocratic sister, the beautiful Iris. Eden is a charismatic figure who believes himself to be a healer, with the power of music as the conduit for his skills. While Oscar is mesmerised by the seductive Iris, the most crucial relationship he has is with her fascinating brother.
If this basic premise sounds familiar, that's because the "appeal of beauty" mentioned earlier is built into the novel, which has as its lodestone Brideshead Revisited. The Bellwether Revivals is, in fact, a cogent and timely examination of the conflict between religion and scepticism, a theme explored with more rigour than in this novel's template. There, we rarely doubt that Waugh is on the side of grace and the supernatural. Donna Tartt's The Secret History is also in the DNA here, and there are echoes of another literary analysis of the unhealthy emotional bond between a brother and sister, L P Hartley's Eustace and Hilda.
Does it matter that Wood wears his influences so clearly on his sleeve? Some may find the book reads like a contemporary filigree on its illustrious predecessors, but most readers will find themselves transfixed by this richly drawn cast of characters. The fact that Wood can hold his own in such heavyweight company is a measure of his achievement. We can, it seems, forgive him his splendid pompadour and soulful eyes.