A review of The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Bellwether Revivals
by Benjamin Wood
2012, ISBN 978-0-670-02359-2, 420 p.

The classic novel about a bright person of humble origins excluded from an institution of higher learning is Thomas Hardy’s brilliant but depressing Jude the Obscure. Author Benjamin Wood’s chilling and compelling first novel has a working class protagonist who survives his brush with social class and academia, unlike Jude, but emerges chilled and bereft. The Bellwether Revivals compellingly blends the coming-of-age and suspense/thriller genres.

In politics, a “bellwether” state or constituency is one in which the election returns usually predict the outcome of the entire election. Historically, a “wether” was a castrated ram who led a flock of sheep, wearing a bell to signal the flock’s whereabouts when they were out of sight. In choosing “Bellwether” as the surname of four of his characters, Wood signalled that the word will have a symbolic function in the novel.

Wood’s decision to open with a “Prelude” as a master stroke. The opening scene shows paramedics arriving at the house and being informed that there are three bodies, one upstairs, one in the “organ house” and Eden Bellwether, alive but unconscious, on the lawn. A group referred to as “they”, feel guilty and blame themselves, but one of them, Oscar, says, “It’s over now; we can’t change it.” This wonderful hook ensures that readers will want to know who the bodies are, who Eden Bellwether is, and whether he is a survivor or the perpetrator of a crime. The words “prelude” adn “organ house” signal that music will be important.

Then, shifing back in time to the roots of the tragedy, Wood presents his central character, Oscar, a 20 year old practical nurse at a retirement residence/nursing home in Cambridge, England. Oscar’s shortest route home from work is across King’s College grounds, but he dislikes going near the chapel because it makes him feel “tiny, irrelevant and godless.” Oscar would have liked to have gone on to higher education, but his father, a dry waller/construction worker, was eager to push him out into the working world. “Oscar was raised to believe that if he stayed in his room reading about made-up worlds it meant he didn’t appreciate the life he had.” He was kept out of school at times to help his father work. Oscar has moved out of their housing development into Cambridge where he is free to read what he wants and see whom he likes, but so far he hasn’t socialized much. The nursing home residents at work are a “cast of elderly relatives he is grateful for having adopted.”

Passing the chapel, he is drawn by beautiful organ music and goes in. In the congregation is a pretty blonde girl who fidgets through the sevice, except for the music portions. Outside, their paths cross and she introduces herself as Iris Bellwether, second year medical student. Her brother, Eden, a music student, is the organist as part of his scholarship program, in which he excels. During the conversation she invites Oscar to come and hear her play the cello in her chamber music group. Then her brother appears, meets Oscar, and gives his sister a ride home on the cross bar of his bicycle.

Thus Oscar lucks into a friendship with a pretty girl above him on the social scale, and her circle, which includes her brother, two other university students named Yin and Marcus, and Eden’s girlfriend, Jane. He becomes the token working class member of their group, and the role is sometimes uncomfortable. They seem fascinated by his work, sometimes with incredulity that he could “clean up after” old people, sometimes with praise, as when Mrs. Bellwether says it is very “Christian” of him, and often with condescension. Eden, for instance, is astonished that Oscar, a “humble nurse”, has heard of the concept of the “Music of the Spheres” while his own sister, a Cambridge student, can’t define the term.

Wood introduces the music theme early on. Eden believes that music can be written to manipulate emotions the way a chemist combines chemicals to achieve certain results. He invites Oscar to take part in an experiment. Unsuspecting Oscar is put into a trance by the singing and playing of Eden and his friends, and awakes to find his hand hurting because a roofing nail has been forced into it. Eden treats the wound with a laying on of hands comparable to Reiki, but Oscar is angry at having been used. The following day, however, his wound is better and he thinks he overreacted.

Wood balances the arrogant, exploitative Bellwether group with a character who is also well-educated and privileged, but kind. A nursing home resident, Professor Bram Paulsen, lends Oscar books from his extensive personal library, and encourages Oscar’s intellectual life.

Iris apologizes to Oscar and asks for his help in documenting instances of Eden’s mental instablity so that she has evidence to take to their parents or a psychiatrist, with a view to getting him some help. Besotted by Iris, Oscar is flattered and willing.

Meanwhile, Dr. Paulsen’s former graduate student and former lover, Dr. Herbert Crest, appears, wanting to mend their broken friendship. Crest, a psychology professor in ihs late 60s, is in London trying to complete a book on narcissistic personality disorder before he dies of a brain tumour.

Faith is a central theme in the novel, not only faith healing, but everyday belief and trust in friends and asociates. Whom should Oscar trust? Can he believe that Iris really “feels serious” about him, or is she just using him to save her brother? Or is Iris using Oscar to distance herself from a too-intense brother-sister relationship with Eden? Suspense lies, too, in whether or not the brilliant, erratic Eden has some unique power. We wonder why Iris doesn’t approach Jane, Eden’s girlfriend, for insights into his psyche. Iris says Jane is off in her own little world most of the time, but she appears perceptive, grounded and humorously self-deprecating during the high flown philosophical discussions sparked by Eden.

Eden is the bellwether in that he dominates the discourse and leads a flock of people in thrall to him, but Oscar is also a bellwether in the sense of a creature being used. When Eden goes missing after two of his experiments go tragically awry, Iris persuades Oscar to try to figure out where her brother might be. Oscar’s insights serve only to let Eden know what his family and friends are thinking and doing about his absence. Although Oscar is happy to be sexually involved with the lovely Iris, he realizes that she controls the relationship as far as how much time they spend together, and that he is never sure of her love.

The author creates a very visual and dramatic climax when Oscar, with Yin, Marcus and Jane, go to the Bellwether family home to pick up Iris for the glamorous May Ball at St. John’s College. Sane, kind Oscar, when faced with a choice between administering rough justice or choosing the civilized route, opts for the latter.

The Bellwether Revivals has been compared to Brideshead Revisited, because of the brother-sister relationship and the social class element. The ending, however, is reminiscent of that of Sons and Lovers, that great coming-of-age working class novel by D.H.Lawrence, following in Thomas Hardy’s tradition. Lawrence’s working class hero, in the throes of grief, walks “quickly” towards the city lights in the distance. Oscar, who is on the path to a fulfilling live as Wood’s novel ends, does something similar.

The Bellwether Revivals is a precursor of many more compelling novels from Benjamin Wood.

Ruth Latta’s latest novel is The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2012, ISBN 978-1-926945-70-5 baico@bellnet.ca