Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mesmeric healer or spoiled prodigy? (Books - The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood)

Benjamin Wood has written a suspenseful, smart psychological thriller in The Bellwether Revivals (Penguin, 2013).  Working in Cambridge in a nursing home, Oscar Lowe is drawn into a chapel one day by the sound of the organ.  There he meets Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden plays the organ.
When he asked for her name, she replied: 'It's Iris.  Like the genus.'
And he laughed - just a short vent of air from his nose, but enough for her to step back and say, 'What's so funny?'
'Most people would say like the flower, that's all.'
'Well, I'm not most people.  I'm not going to say it's like the flower when I know perfectly well that it's a genus.  And I'll tell you something else.'  She broike for a gulp of breath.  'I know exactly which variety I am.  Iris milifolia.  The hardest one to look after.'
As they begin a relationship Oscar, a self-educated and independent young man who grew up on a council estate is drawn into the strange circle of Iris, Eden, and their posh coterie of fellow Cambridge students, who all grew up knowing that they are 'not most people.'

Eden, a spoiled mesmeric boy, believes he has the power to cure people of their ailments.  He surrounds himself with people who either believe him or are afraid to disabuse him of this idea, but the evidence is confusing, and this is the crux of the story - is he a healer or does he suffer from delusions of grandeur and a pathological need to control everyone around him?

Wood has created a likeably eccentric cast of characters and draws the reader in with an assured hand. He plays nimbly with the limits of our knowledge of the human mind.  Psychology is a science in that it can measure states of mind and creates lenses to help us visualize the forces that drive human behavior - but it does not predict the behavior of any individual person.  Wood draws a wonderfully compelling character in psychologist Herbert Crest, an expert on Narcissitic Personality Disorder who, when we meet him, is fatally ill and longing for a miracle cure.  His appearance actively embodies the paradoxical terrain explored in the novel without being too explanatory.  It is a pity Wood was tempted to include a piece of writing by the fictional Crest in his epilogue, in which he pits the scientific against the supernatural.  This edged the novel toward an ending that was a trifle big for its britches. I know pitting science against belief is a popular gladiator sport these days, but frankly, it's a false dichotomy and it got close to ruining the book's delightfully modest tone, set by the likeable protagonist.  But this debut novel had too much going for it for that to spoil it.  The suspense drove this novel's with an energetic and urgent rhythm and, in the end, Wood's characters mature in a believable and a satisfying way.

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