"I didn't want to just regurgitate the same sort of story about students having a wonderful bally-hoo time in their colleges": filled with murder, ruined relationships and potential medical miracles, Benjamin Wood's The Bellwether Revivals (Simon & Schuster, February) certainly does shy away from the lighter side of university life.
Following the bookish Oscar Lowe, who has swapped the urban estate of his childhood for the daunting architecture of Cambridge, Wood's début is a powerful read that explores the conflicts that arise between logic, religion and blind faith.
Working at a local nursing home, Oscar meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and rich medical student at Cambridge University. Slowly drawn into her privileged world of academia, Oscar soon finds himself entangled in the sinister machinations of Iris' deeply intelligent—but deeply disturbed—brother Eden, a King's College organ scholar who believes he can heal the sick by playing them Baroque compositions.
A former resident of the city himself, Wood's inspiring yet imposing Cambridge becomes a character in its own right. Having never visited Cambridge before he decided to live there, his initial reaction to the city helped him to find Oscar's voice and see a way into the novel.
"Cambridge anchors the whole book, it is such a unique place to write about. It is not right to say it is an intellectual circle—especially not in the way it is portrayed in The Bellwether Revivals—but there is a feeling that comes from being in an academic city but not really being a part of it. You do just feel the presence of this great place, and it is both inspiring and incredibly overwhelming.
"The characters are all trying to fit in within that environment: Oscar is on the fringes, trying to fit into an academic lifestyle which he isn't familiar with but respects. Whereas Eden and Iris, who are very much institutionalised in that academic environment, are trying to fit into the wider world."
Iris' distrust of her brother's abilities and mental wellbeing waxes and wanes, but for Oscar, whose cynicism and hesitance reflects that of the reader, Eden's "genius" is always on the wrong side of insanity; as Eden's belief in his abilities grows, so does Oscar's sense of dread.
"I had to tread this fine line: Eden had to be somehow overwhelmingly charismatic and talented, to the degree that Oscar would even want to be a part of his world, but he also had to be sinister. I needed to get the balance between making sure that readers actually liked Eden and wanted to spend time with him, but were also distrustful of him. Hopefully you are won over by his sheer self-belief, because the book then does become about these larger clashes between science and religion and madness and genius."
Eden's self-belief results in a tragic and devastating dénouement, but it is while Oscar's life is collapsing around him that he finally finds the acceptance he has longed for. "He gets that acceptance, but it is on his own terms. He's not just consumed by [the Bellwether siblings'] will for him. It takes tragedy for him to get there himself. That's something that I thought a lot about, because I didn't want it to seem that wealth and privilege and the blessing of education is something that will fix all of your problems, because those things are not what redeem him at the end."
The other key relationship for Oscar is his friendship with ill-tempered nursing home resident Dr Paulsen. The pair's interaction—often while Paulsen is on his sickbed—provides ironically light reprieve from the intensity of Eden's revival mission. Based on his own childhood (Wood grew up in a nursing home run by his parents) he says Paulson was "somebody I just loved writing. It was really the only part I could draw from real experiences and I found a way to channel all of these memories."
Wood's day job has also helped bring The Bellwether Revivals into fruition; it took just over three years to write, and as a Creative Writing lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, Wood explains that: "teaching keeps your mind on reading, writing and thinking about the process of writing. It definitely helps when it comes to seeing the mistakes you've made."
Simon & Schuster is billing Wood's début as reminiscent of The Great Gatsby and The Secret History. The Bellwethers' grand Grantchester home, where much of the book is set, definitely creates the same incestuous and claustrophobic atmosphere of F Scott Fitzgerald's North Shore or Donna Tartt's Hampden College.
Wood says he "can't deny the influence of The Secret History, but those comparisons, in the age that we are in, where there are so many books published that readers need a handle [on], are inevitable. I just want this book to reach some readers and hopefully find an audience."
- Nina Stibbe | "I remember phoning my mother and saying: ‘Oh, Alan Bennett came for tea; I think he’s some sort of playwright.’"
- Barbara Kingsolver | "I didn’t want to write a novel that people would throw across the room when they were halfway done"
- Lauren Beukes | "I didn’t want to do a sexy, cool psychopath"
- Kathryn Erskine | "I didn’t want to make it about a shooting.”
- James Meek | "That's the wonder of being a writer of fiction- that you are the watcher and the actor at the same time"