The Bellwether Revivals, By Benjamin Wood

Deft rendition of a sinister soundtrack

Daniel Hahn
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00

Walking past the chapel of King's College, Cambridge on his way home from work, Oscar hears the organ playing for the start of Evensong and is drawn in.

He's an atheist, but there's just something special about that music. In the congregation, his attention is caught by a girl, Iris, and after the service they strike up a conversation. Over the weeks that follow, as he begins to fall in love with her, Oscar finds himself entangled in her circle of friends. Cool to his own family, and stifled, Oscar suddenly feels alive with this new little "flock". Their centre of gravity is Iris's charismatic, arrogant, persuasive and dangerous brother, Eden Bellwether. Oscar will have to compete with him for Iris – not for her affections, exactly, but for her allegiance.

The Bellwethers' group are students at the university; highly educated and accustomed to comfort and luxury – a life of "weightlessness", Benjamin Wood calls it. Oscar is a nursing-home care assistant. His experiences, his expectations and his horizons could not be more different from theirs. The great tension in The Bellwether Revivals, however, is not between town and gown. It's not about class and privilege, but about sceptical, scientific reason versus faith and irrational hope. For the brilliant Eden, so he would have you believe, has a scientifically unexplainable gift.

Eden's greatest talent is as a musician, and he believes in the power of his music not only to master the emotions or the passions (he's an admirer of Descartes), but also to hypnotise and even to heal. And he likes to demonstrate his ability to control. (It was Eden who was playing the organ at King's that night.) When the day comes to put his supernatural healing abilities to the test, nobody thinks too hard about potential consequences. There are people, after all, who do want to believe, for whom "a single thread of hope" is the one essential to cling to, however much it might conflict with their otherwise rational structures of thought.

While the novel is a particular study of Eden's psychological disturbance, Wood's other characters are well-drawn, too, and there is some richly imagined emotion behind the ideas presented and the engaging plot. The story will end in violence, with dead bodies, and paramedics attending to the sinister Eden himself.

This is no spoiler, though, as The Bellwether Revivals begins with that very scene, before spooling back to the beginning to recount how we come to be there. It's a deft trick, retaining enough doubt to allow Wood to sustain plenty of what-happens-next, page-turning anxiety. In prose that's unfussy but effortlessly vivid, filled with nice descriptive flourishes (he's good at quite difficult things, such as describing the growing sound of music as it thickens the air of a room), Wood's confident, sometimes creepy debut novel draws you in – like the faintly heard strain from that hauntingly played pipe-organ – and then, once you're inside, holds on, ever tightening its grip.

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