Psychological thriller impressive literary debut

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THIS meaty and satisfying psychological thriller is an impressive literary debut.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/03/2012 (3902 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THIS meaty and satisfying psychological thriller is an impressive literary debut.

Author Benjamin Wood, born and raised in England, was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to attend the master of fine arts program at the University of British Columbia.

Published in England in 2010, The Bellwether Revivals was shortlisted for the inaugural Sony reader award category of the Dylan Thomas Prize, drawing comparison to Sarah Waters and ensuring international publication.

Wood enjoys taking on major themes. There is no treacle or reliance on self-help pop psychology or heavy metaphysical theorizing. He embeds ideas such as faith, hope, charity, class and the line between madness and genius in an engaging story with well-drawn characters.

Oscar is a young nursing assistant in Cambridge. One day he cuts through the grounds of King’s College and is drawn into the chapel by enchanting organ music. He is noticed by Iris Bellwether, who introduces him to the organist, her brother, Eden. He is smitten by Iris and intrigued by Eden, setting the story in motion.

Oscar is drawn into their circle of friends, gradually adjusting to his acceptance in this world of intellect and privilege. This is a common plot of Hollywood movies and British novels, but Wood finds a way to keep it fresh and interesting, even as much of the action unfolds in an old and ominous estate.

One way Wood manages to do that is with a subplot involving one of the old men in Oscar’s care and his former lover, a psychologist and writer, Herbert Crest. Drawn into the clique because of his hope in Eden’s delusions that he can cure his brain tumour, Crest uses the experience for his next book.

The portrayal of these aging men seeking reconciliation is extraordinary, especially when one remembers Wood was under 30 when he wrote the novel.

Not every writer is able to draw such vivid portraits of substantially different characters: young and old, rich and poor (but noble), men and women.

For the most part Wood manages to reveal characters through their actions and conversations. For example, an imaginary tennis match between Oscar and Iris concludes with crisp, convincing dialogue at a crucial point of conflict.

Wood also powerfully conveys the transformational qualities of music, essential to fully realizing Eden’s character.

Oscar sees the conflict and danger in Eden’s character before any of the others. The third-person narrator reveals Oscar’s insight:

“The more the music came surging towards him, the sadder he felt — because as surely as he could picture Eden as an organist at a magnificent cathedral like St Paul’s or Notre Dame, he could also picture him as a patient in some white-walled psychiatric wing, playing silent toccatas on the windowsill.”

Portraying artistic geniuses as living close to the edge of madness is a common romantic conceit. But The Bellwether Revivals may make those readers who see artistic genius achieved despite mental illness, not because of it, uncomfortable. This discomfort deepens as Wood connects the usual clichéd dots linking madness to danger and violence.

So, yes, Wood uses standard elements of the genre, but he so effectively tells such a strong story that they are easily accepted without impeding an entertaining read.

Victor Enns writes poetry and book reviews in Winnipeg. His new collection, boy, will be published in May.

The Bellwether Revivals

By Benjamin Wood

McClelland & Stewart, 432 pages, $30

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