The Bellwether Revivals is not about music, or murder, or even love, though all three are present: the music a repeating grace note trill, the murder a quick, cruel beating on a snare, the love an arpeggio swell. Instead, the grand soloist of Benjamin Wood’s debut novel is the eternal rest and long pause of loss. By the close, every major character will know loss, save the eponymous Eden Bellwether, whose failed attempts to achieve and preserve perfection will lock him in the garden of his namesake, ignorant but not innocent of an admittedly original sin.
We readers follow quiet, sensible everyman Oscar Lowe as he becomes increasingly entangled with the Bellwether siblings, Iris and Eden. He falls in love with clove-smoking, cello-playing Iris, and becomes both witness to and participant in Eden’s mystical, strange experiments with musical healing. We also witness Oscar’s working life as a nursing home attendant, and his friendship with one of the residents, a retired professor named Dr. Paulsen. Oscar’s life and the lives of the Bellwethers begin to bleed into each other after he and Iris enlist the help of Dr. Paulsen’s former lover (Herbert Crest, a psychologist) to unravel Eden’s strange behavior.
And Eden’s behavior is indeed strange. He is alternately charming and rude, fascinating and repulsive. There is a scene fairly late in the book in which the Bellwether parents inform their children that they will be relocating to France, alone. Iris receives the news calmly—happily, even, since she’ll be able to live in King’s College’s student dormitories while her mother and father are in France. Eden takes the disruption badly, and is described as “chewing on his bottom lip so hard it looked like it might come apart under his teeth. His lungs heaved in his chest, up and down, like two great accordions trapped behind his ribcage.” Oscar discovers him later that evening, slumped against the bathroom tile, clutching a schematic and a plan to keep the present as it is.
An equally intense, affecting scene describes one of Eden’s experiments. Oscar, the subject, undergoes hypnosis via a private concert given by Eden, Iris, and their friends: “The singing and the fluid cello countered the spikes of the clavichord, anchoring the music, giving it gravity. He wasn’t sure if it was just his mind playing games with him, but he swore he was falling out of consciousness. The music pushed and retreated in his head, steady as the tide. He was falling away.”
Wood’s writing is similarly hypnotic, humming along in the background, calling attention to itself only when required by the plot or characters. The novel is on the whole a smooth read, the writing never failing to position the reader somewhere just above Oscar’s right shoulder. The decision to filter the novel through Oscar is a wise one: the reader is allowed glimpses of Eden rather than a detailed excavation of his mind, which makes his odd behavior and the mysteries surrounding that behavior all the more engaging. Tethering the reader to Oscar also allows for a clearer view of the privileged world of the Bellwethers, as it is constantly held up against the more familiar world of Oscar’s daily life.
Unfortunately, this limited viewpoint also results in the supporting characters being occasionally indistinguishable from each other—Iris and Eden’s friends tend to fade into the background, and sometimes seem to serve no purpose other than to help carry out Eden’s experiments. In a somewhat similar vein, Oscar’s love affair with Iris can come across as an unwanted detour from the real centerpiece of the novel—Eden—but these are small, minor complaints. Happily, the quiet stretches of time spent with Oscar and Paulsen in the nursing home are hours well worth the detour away from Eden, and when Wood writes as well as he does about the gradual losses accrued within and without the nursing home, any and all slight bumps that exist in the novel can be forgiven, even absolved.
Nikki HoSang lives in Southern California, where she reads, writes, and codes.