In The Bellwether Revivals, Oscar Lowe is an odd man out at Cambridge. Though he reads widely in literature and philosophy, he grew up working class on an estate, didn’t go to university, and now works at Cedarwood nursing home. One day, taking a shortcut to work through the campus, he is drawn by the organ music emanating from the King’s College chapel and wanders in. Here he meets Iris Bellwether, medical student and cellist, and later her brother Eden, an eccentric organ scholar. Along with Yin, Marcus and Jane, these six become a tight-knit clique, held together by their participation in Eden’s peculiar experiments with hypnosis and musical therapy. He has the notion that his music has healing powers; even as a child he would hypnotize his sister and then stick pins in her to prove she couldn’t feel pain while she was under. Oscar undergoes a similar initiation when Eden mesmerizes him with an organ piece and then, painlessly, shoves a nail through the flap of skin on the top of his hand. Mysteriously, the wound heals by the next day.
Eden keeps scaling the experiments up: he mends Iris’s badly broken leg by wrapping it in towels that have encircled his organ pipes, and later he attempts similar treatment on Herbert Crest, an American psychologist with a terminal brain tumor. But at the same time, Eden is the subject of an experiment himself: Iris and Oscar have gone to Dr. Crest with video recordings of Eden’s ‘sessions’ with Iris, hoping Crest can diagnose Narcissistic Personality Disorder and offer some advice from his clinical experience. Yet Eden may well be one step ahead of them, and as his obsession starts to shade into madness it appears he will in fact turn dangerous – for as the novel’s prologue has already revealed, at least two characters are going to wind up dead.
The Bellwether Revivals bears striking resemblances to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, what with its elegantly sinister tale of secrets amongst a group of posh college students. Wood also echoes Tartt’s evocation of a timeless classiness – apart from a few points of cultural context, one could just as easily be reading a novel set in the 1950s or 1980s (I never could figure out if The Secret History was meant to be period or contemporary). There are also touches of classical English country house suspense, somewhat along the lines of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, especially in the scenes at the Bellwether mansion. Themes of science versus superstition, the power of music, and the extent of family loyalty make for a simultaneously weighty and brisk read.
Characterization is another strong point – at least when it comes to the three main characters; secondary characters Yin, Marcus and Jane are rather flat and pointless, though Oscar’s care home friend Dr. Paulsen and Herbert Crest (former lovers, we later discover) making for particularly endearing old fellows. I can imagine the novel working perfectly as a film: Freddie Fox was surely born to play Eden Bellwether (and every other posh fop), and I can picture either Carey Mulligan or Mia Wasikowska as Iris. If you like your fiction to be intelligent and stylish as well as suspenseful – along the lines of Gone Girl and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather – The Bellwether Revivals will be a great next novel for you.