Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Synopsis: Oscar meets Iris and Eden, her brother, after listening to him play the organ at a church service. Oscar works at a nursing home and feels lost about his prospects. He is adopted into the siblings' circle where Eden dominance is challenged by Oscar's arrival.

Very occasionally, I come across a book that unexpectedly tears my heart out, rearranges its contents, and gives it to me back bruised but recharged. A little bit of spiritual resuscitation that knocks the clutter about and awakens a different perspective. This is such an exquisite thing - and one of the primary reasons I read. The Bellwether Revivals probably isn't going to be transformative in my life in a lasting way, but this temporary ground-shift is a literary high. It keeps me coming back for more even as I regroup from being laid flat.

The story revolves around a group of friends attending Cambridge. Of the group, two are siblings, Iris and Eden Bellwether. The two meet Oscar, a high school grad who works a menial job at a nearby nursing home. They are worlds apart, but Oscar joins their little "flock."

There is something about British novels set in the present that almost must follow a script. The boarding school snobs, eccentric bright young things, irascible old men. Stodgy traditions sanctified by time and not reason. The incessant talk that defines college-aged kids who are vocalizing their adulthood like mating calls. It's familiar on some level and yet other as an American. The class distinctions drive me nuts. There is so much resentment and pride topped with a stubborn chokehold on maintaining the status quo that annoys the hell out of me. Each subscriber lives a half century behind while ostensibly embracing all the intellectual advances of the present with the other half. It's totally schizophrenic.

Perhaps that explains the common theme of the abnormal psyche in many modern British novels. Really, it's fetishized. The English mystery (by which we also mean Scottish, etc.) almost invariably contain a mental issue at the root of any serious chain of events. I suppose my experience is mostly anecdotal, but outside of the comedic (and sometimes even then), a particularly dark strain of psychology shadows characters of the UK. This book is no exception. There is nothing accidental about who, what, where, and why - for all the god-playing, the tragedy is inbred. I'm not suggesting that the story is a foregone conclusion, but there is an underlying tension that something has to give.

Unlike other stories where you feel the characters can alter the course - often evoking all kinds of feelings when bad things happen due to their action or inaction - Oscar, Iris, Eden, et al. are not in control despite choices being made. They are in the grip of history, an alternate history, being played out. This isn't to say they are made out to be pawns or marionettes. The characters are remarkably drawn and I particularly loved Oscar, an atheist, for his morality. He is wonderfully appealing as a moral compass in light of how religion shapes part of the narrative. All of the players behave believably whether this makes them likable or not. Despite creating complex characters, Wood also shades each one with real humanity. Eden's egoism is a major turn off, but his greater intentions veer decidedly towards benevolence. Even secondary characters with less exposure show evolution in a way that is entirely true, like when Mrs. Bellwether, a cold, old-school Anglican snob if ever there was one, endorses Oscar, a godless blue-collar boy.

These layers of The Bellwether Revivals are superb. The intersection of music, religion, science, literature, philosophy, medicine, psychology, family, class, education, aging and death are handled directly and yet unobtrusively. They go together naturally, much as they do in real life. This was brought vividly to mind because I read this book concurrently with another with uncannily similar themes. I admit that I finished Gameboard of the Gods before this one even though I started Bellwether first. It's not that Bellwether didn't grab me - it did, from page one - but the sexier, fast-paced sci-fi gripped me. I won't compare them - it's pointless when the genres and their respective aims are so disparate - but Wood's virtuosity leaps into consciousness as I see how independent treatments of the same subjects can reach equally enjoyable ends, but not equally transcendent ones.

I was surprised how moved I was by The Bellwether Revivals. Based on the summary, I expected a cynical, maybe even horrific, take on modern society through the prism of this highly privileged setting of highly privileged people. Academics gone monstrous in insularity is a common theme of literary fiction. These can be entertaining and insightful, but rarely emotionally affecting. Wood places us, the readers, into the shoes of each of these varied characters and turns the screws on our perceptions - where the dark is not always obscuring and the obvious cannot find a consensus.

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