The Bellwether Revivals
*Finalist for the Costa First Novel Award*
*Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize*
From a rising literary star, a thrilling debut novel of psychological suspense set among the colleges of Cambridge
When bright and bookish Oscar Lowe follows the haunting sound of an organ into the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, one day, his whole world changes. He meets a beautiful and seductive medical student, Iris Bellwether, and her charismatic and troubled brother Eden. Oscar is seduced by their life of scholarship and privilege, but when Eden convinces Iris and her close-knit group of friends to participate in a series of disturbing experiments, Oscar fears he has entered into something from which he cannot escape. Reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, The Bellwether Revivals is a gripping exploration of the line between genius and madness that will hold readers spellbound until its breathtaking conclusion.
Oscar Lowe would later tell police that he couldn't remember the exact date he first laid eyes on the Bellwethers, though he knew for sure it had been a Wednesday. It was one of those late October evenings in Cambridge when the gun-grey light of the afternoon had faded well before six, and the cobbled avenues of the old town were dark and silent. He had just finished an eight-to-five shift at Cedarbrook, the nursing home on Queen's Road where he was a care assistant, and his mind was slow and heavy, laden with the details of his workday: the vacant faces of the older residents, the pallor of their tongues as they took their pills, the give of their skin as he lifted them into the bath. All he wanted was to get home, to fall upon his bed and sleep right through until tomorrow, when he would have to wake up and do the same things over again.
By cutting through the grounds of King's College, he knew he could shave some time off the walk. In the old city, everybody cycled: the students skittered along the narrow lanes with loaded backpacks, the tourists pin-balled from college to college on rented wheels. At any time of day, on any given pavement in Cambridge, someone could be found unlocking a bike from a lamppost and riding off towards the next one. But Oscar preferred the solace of walking.
He crossed the Clare bridge and took the shortcut through the grounds of King's, hearing the flat echo of his footsteps on the path, still glassy from the afternoon rain. Everywhere was quiet. The clipped lawns seemed unusually blue with the indolent glow of floodlamps, and, somewhere close by, woodsmoke was rising from a cottage chimney, giving the air an impression of fog. As he went by the face of the college chapel, he tried his best not to look up at it, knowing exactly how it would make him feel: tiny, irrelevant, godless. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't help but stare at it—that formidable gothic building with its tall spindles needling the sky and its giant blackened windows. It was the picture-postcard on every carousel stand along King's Parade. He'd always hated it. Up close, in the near darkness, the place only haunted him more. It was not the architecture that troubled him, but the age of the building, the scale of its history; the royalty who'd once communed there, all the serious people whose faces now thickened encyclopedias.
A service was underway inside. He could already hear the muted thrum of organ music behind the chapel walls, and when he turned into the Front Court, the sound grew louder and sweeter, until he was close enough to make out the fullness of the instrument—a low, hoarse purr. He could almost feel it against his ribs. It was nothing like the over-powering dirges he remembered from school Christmas services, or the blundering renditions of Abide With Me he'd strained to sing over at his grandparents' funerals. There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn't pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer. Oscar stopped in the entrance just to listen, and saw the sandwich-board near the open doorway: "Evensong 5:30, Public Welcome." Before he knew it, his feet had carried him all the way inside.
Stained glass windows surrounded him, barely showing their colors. The vaulted arches of the ceiling seemed to roll out into the distance. At the heart of the building, a wingspan of organ pipes bellowed from a wooden partition, and he could see the somber congregation waiting in the candlelight on the other side. He found an empty seat and watched the choir filing in. The younger boys stood on the front row in their white gowns, cheerful and distracted; the older boys stood sheepishly behind them, aware of themselves in that teenaged way, fidgeting with their sleeves. When the organ stopped there was a momentary silence, and then the choir began to sing.
Their voices were so synchronized and balanced that Oscar could hardly tell them apart. They surged and retracted with the ease of an ocean, and he felt a rush in his heart as he listened. He was sorry when their hymn ended and the reverend stood up to recite the Holy Creed. Across the aisle, people were gamely muttering the prayer, but Oscar stayed quiet, still thinking of the music. By the time he noticed the blonde girl a few spaces along his pew, the congregation had reached "and sitteth on the right hand of God." She was mouthing the words grudgingly, the way a bored child recites times tables, and, when she saw that he wasn't joining in the prayer, gave a slow roll of her eyes, as if to say: "Get me out of here." The simple profile of her face excited him. He smiled at her but wasn't sure that she noticed.
Now the reverend was reading from Jeremiah ("If thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth. . . .") and Oscar watched the girl and her encumbered, self-conscious movements. Like him, she didn't seem to appreciate the strange etiquette of the church. She kneed the hymnbook to the floor midway through the sermon, causing the reverend to pause, and while his dreary lesson continued she toyed with the bezel of her watch, until two pale-faced choristers began a new hymn and the organ started up again. The only time the blonde girl sat still was when the choir was singing. Her chest rose, inflated; her lip quivered. She seemed awed by the tapestry of their voices, the clarity of their sound, the swelling harmonies that flooded the yawning space above them. Oscar could see her fingers counting out the rhythm on her knee until the final "amen." The choir sat down and silence—like a deployed parachute—descended in the chapel.
At the end of the service, people filtered out by order of importance: first, the choir and the clergy in a procession of white, then the congregation. Oscar hoped he could follow the girl to the door, get close enough to spark a conversation, but he ended up between a group of men debating the merits of the sermon and a softly-spoken French couple consulting their guidebooks for the route home. He lost the sound of her small, scuffing steps behind him as she disappeared into the crowd. Weary tourists moved slowly along the aisles, putting on their jackets and packing away their cameras; young children slept in their fathers' arms while their mothers baby-wiped their fingers. Oscar couldn't see the girl anywhere. He put some change on the collection plate as he went out, and the reverend said, "Thank you, good evening." In the vestibule, the air seemed colder, sharper. Darkness had settled fully over the city and he could feel that familiar, constricting tiredness returning to his shoulders. He turned his collar to the night. It was then—as the crowd dispersed in front of him—that he saw her in the shadows, leaning against the grey bricks of the chapel.
She was reading an old paperback, tilting the pages into the second-hand light of the vestibule with one hand, and cradling a clove cigarette between the fingers of the other. Her reading glasses were too big for her face, square with round edges, like large projector slides. After a moment, she glanced up from her book and smiled. "One thing I know about church," she said, "is to learn where the exits are. It's like being on a plane. Have to get out in an emergency." Her accent was genteel, proper, the stuff of elocution lessons; but there was also something uncertain about the way she spoke, as if she was trying hard to rough up the edges of her sentences (she had dropped the "g" of "being" and it sounded strange).
"I'll try to remember that for next time," Oscar said.
“Wood vividly dramatizes the quandary that Oscar finds himself in: He’s so entranced by Iris and the Bellwether circle that he dreads challenging Eden directly, yet Eden could be a danger to himself and others. The showdown occurs at the remote estate owned by the absent Bellwether parents, where Eden retreats to a small outbuilding housing an organ — a place where the Phantom of the Opera would feel right at home.”
—Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
“Wood’s novel is weighty and so he sets himself a challenge. Fortunately, in the main, he pulls it off, at times triumphantly. . . . It would be an overstatement to suggest that Wood does for Cambridge what Evelyn Waugh does for Oxford but, to give him his due, he accurately captures, or recreates, that similar youthful hedonism and folly, and Eden is as offbeat and infuriating a creation as Sebastian Flyte. . . . Wood’s own original stamp is his treatment of that brittle boundary between genius and madness, and its inventiveness and execution makes this debut a compulsive read.”
—Malcolm Forbes, The National (UAE)
“From the moment young Oscar follows the organ music in Kings College chapel, I was ready to follow the talented Benjamin Wood anywhere. Wood writes beautifully about music, hypnotism, old people and the lush landscapes of Cambridge. And his intricate plot carries both Oscar and the reader to a place where the stakes, finally, are nothing less than life and death.”
—Margot Livesey, author of the New York Times bestselling The Flight of Gemma Hardy
“Oh how I loved this novel! I was drawn in from the very first sentence and pretty much didn’t put it down until I reached the last. This is the kind of story that makes you want to hole up under the covers and not come out until you’ve uncovered the mysteries at its heart. I find myself constantly thinking of Wood’s characters—wonderful, surprising Oscar Lowe and those beautiful, doomed Bellwethers. It reminded me, more than anything, of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another novel that utterly consumed me, body and soul.”
—Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of the New York Times bestselling A Fortunate Age
“Discovering the world of Benjamin Wood’s characters is like unlocking a series of psychological puzzles, mysterious and completely engrossing. Impossible to put down, The Bellwether Revivals is a brilliant investigation into obsessions and their entirely unpredictable consequences.”
—Susan Daitch, author of Paper Conspiracies
“Well-drawn . . . richly imagined emotion . . . 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.”
—The Independent on Sunday (UK)
“The Bellwether Revivals is a stunningly good debut novel, a thrilling story of music and its hold on a group of young people’s minds and lives. Benjamin Wood writes with vigor, precision and intensity, with a story that will keep readers up all night.”
—Steven Galloway, bestselling author of The Cellist of Sarajevo
“The Bellwether Revivals renders the cruelties and frailties of genius with acuity and tenderness, exploring the naïve sophistication of bright young minds, the moral immunity granted to coteries of privilege and the true nature of mastery in art. Seductive, resonant and disquieting, Benjamin Wood’s novel captures strains and cadences, qualities of music that are rarely rendered except in sound.”
—Eleanor Catton, award-winning author of The Rehearsal
“In this multi-themed and far-reaching novel, the dichotomies of reason and superstition, sanity and madness, science and faith, are given close and sustained attention. . . . An accomplished novel, suffused with intelligence and integrity. Wood gives voice to theories and ideas in a lucid and accessible way. . . . This skillful novel has flow, pace and a lightness of touch.”
—Samantha Harvey, The Guardian (UK)
“Previous authors have explored the proximity of genius to madness, but Wood treats this familiar theme with a freshness and intelligence that hint at greater things to come.”
“There’s more than a hint of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History about this novel, with Cambridge taking the place of Vermont… highly effective.”
—The Daily Mail (UK)
“The novel … has as its lodestone Brideshead Revisited … a timely examination of the conflict between religion and scepticism, a theme explored with more rigor 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.”
—Barry Forshaw, The Independent (UK)
“Music offers no real cure for sickness, as Oscar slowly and disturbingly discovers. The bright boy from the sink estate realizes the Cambridge set he’s been sucked into, in an attempt to ensnare beautiful Iris, is racing towards a terrible danger.”
—The Daily Mirror (UK) (Four-star review)
“Intense . . . Benjamin Wood’s debut plunges into the heart of privileged Cambridge where musical genius Eden Bellwether is the leader of a coterie of acolytes. Outsider Oscar—bookish and estranged from his working-class family—falls for Eden’s sister Iris and becomes involved with Eden’s conviction that he can heal the sick with the music of an obscure baroque composer. Things go wrong when Eden tries to ‘mend’ Iris’s broken leg, and then attempts to cure an author of terminal brain cancer. As events spiral out of control, the conflicts between madness and reason, religion and blind faith, become dangerously real.”
—Marie Claire (UK)
“Students have been in the headlines … will it bring the campus novel back into vogue? With not one but two books featuring students out this month, it certainly seems the case. Written by graduates and both featuring Oxbridge graduates… The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood … boasts a 21st century spin on a genre that once upon a time seemed only to celebrate lofty minded or louche toffs.”
—Mariella Frostrup, Open Books BBC Radio 4
“Praise be, a brilliant debut novel reminiscent of the moral explorations of Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith but younger in temperament, more directly passionate and theatrical.”
—Three Guys One Book
“Wood moves the reader deftly through pastoral Cambridge, into the British upper crust, and ultimately into the mad mind of Eden himself.”
“Read it. Quite a debut.”
—Patrick Neate, author of City of Tiny Lights
“The Bellwether Revivals takes a well-worn format and twists it from the word Go. Main character from humble background insinuates self into the lives of a bunch of posh people, except that this time it’s different, and it’s crucial to the story that it is … Wood’s stylish, sensual novel really cast a spell on me. A fictional experiment. It worked.”
—Isabel Costello, isabelcostello.wordpress.com
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