Hot Off the Press: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Where I got it and why:

I received an ARC through Penguin’s Debut Authors program, which sends previews of first novels by new authors to librarians and booksellers.

Recommended?

Most heartily – particularly if you like books full of psychological complexity and moral grey areas.

Summary:

The Bellwether Revivals opens and closes with bodies. The story of whose bodies and how they come to be spread about an elegant house on the river near Cambridge is told by Oscar, a young, bright working class man who has fallen in love with an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris, and thereby become entangled with a group of close friends, led by Iris’s charismatic, brilliant, possibly dangerous brother. For Eden Bellwether believes he can heal — and perhaps more — through the power of music.
 
In this masterful debut, we too are seduced by this gilded group of young people, entranced by Eden’s powerful personality and his obvious talent as a musician, and caught off guard by the strangeness of Iris and Eden’s parents. And we find ourselves utterly unsure as to whether Eden Bellweather is a saviour or a villain, and whether Oscar will be able to solve this mystery in time to save himself, if not everyone else.

Review:

This is probably the most engrossing book I’ve read in months. Even though I’ve been having a terrible time sticking with anything lately, I sat down with The Bellwether Revivals and didn’t want to leave it alone. And despite the vaguely thriller-ish aspects of the plot and the dramatic opening, that’s entirely down to the characters.
(Here’s where I have to confess that I haven’t read either of the books The Bellwether Revivals keeps being compared to, Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History. Yes, they are both being moved up my to-read list, but you know how large that is. So I can only speak to this book on its own.)
Eden Bellwether is the maelstrom at the center of this book, a small disaster of a human being who draws everyone into his own madness and warps them with the force of his own personality. I wasn’t thrilled, at the beginning of the book, with Oscar as the choice of narrator; as the one normal person in a book full of eccentrics, he’s automatically the least interesting. But I think it was necessary for him to be the point of view for the reader: as the one normal person, he’s the one you can see the effect of Eden’s madness on most clearly.
But is it really madness? (I use “madness” advisedly; “insanity” is too clinical a term for what Eden is like. He’s a near-mythical force, but one with an entirely believable psychology, like a character out of Shakespeare or later Greek myth.) Wood isn’t invested at all in proving Eden right or wrong, he’s only interested in how Eden and the people around him react to believing that he’s right (or wrong).
Lest you think I’m being over-generous in my praise, let me say that there is definitely a sliding scale of characterization in The Bellwether Revivals. Eden is the most perfectly drawn, followed by Iris and then probably the dying psychologist followed by Oscar himself, falling rapidly toward the less-interesting end of the scale with…pretty much everyone else. The rest of the circle of friends, the Bellwether parents, Oscar’s coworkers – they exist and are more than cardboard cutout people, but they exist only to prop up the plot and keep Eden moving. I’d have liked to see someone placed in sharper contrast to Eden, too: he’s a force of his own, and while Oscar could have been an interesting foil for him, I don’t think he makes it to that level.
Eden’s more than enough to keep anyone’s interest in the book, though: Eden and the ongoing mystery of exactly what he thinks he’s doing, and how, and whether or not he’s doing what he thinks he is. All, of course, with the ominous threat of those bodies mentioned on the very first page hanging all over the novel. It’s very effectively creepy in some places, and disarmingly casual in others. It’s a wonderful book, I wish I could read it again for the first time, and I wish everyone I know would read it so we can all discuss it to death at two in the morning over a bottle of wine, as all psychologically complex novels about college students should be discussed.

In a Sentence:

The Bellwether Revivals is a gripping novel about intelligence, sanity, and what happens when you try to push the boundaries of the possible, all wrapped up in a delightful package of family dysfunction.

 

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood will be published in the US by Viking, a subsidiary of Penguin, on June 14. (New Penguin books are no longer available to public libraries through Overdrive, libraries’ primary ebook provider. Let the publisher know if this is a problem for you.) Find it on Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

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