This is one of the many books I bought in the second half of last year which remained unread on the shelf while I was stuck reading challenge books. Now I'm challenge-free I hope to get to all these over the next couple of months, so you can expect quite a few posts to come about books most bloggers have already read!
The Bellwether Revivals is set in Cambridge, where twenty-year-old Oscar is working at a nursing home. One night, as he is walking home from work, he hears organ music coming from King's college chapel and, even though he doesn't believe in God, the music attracts him so much that he slips into the church and joins the congregation for evensong. There, he catches the eye of a pretty girl who he gets chatting to after the service. Iris Bellwether is a medical student at the university; rich, privileged, young and beautiful, and the two begin a romance that will come to mean everything to Oscar.
The fly in the ointment is Iris's brother, Eden - the organist at the church service that Oscar was so drawn to. Eden is a genius and musical prodigy, but his personality is difficult. He has little regard for others, a supreme confidence in himself which borders on delusion, and is highly manipulative. Eden has some interesting theories about the power of music over the body, and he is convinced that he, through music, has the ability to heal. Iris thinks he is going mad and asks Oscar to help her find proof of this madness, but there are incidents from their childhood that make her hesitate, and a part of her wonders if Eden may actually be as special as he claims.
I loved the setting of this book, and Oscar's introduction to the hallowed world of Cambridge academia allowed us to see it all through objective eyes. At first he is cowed and overwhelmed by this rich and beautiful crowd, but gradually he gets to know Iris and Eden's friends and becomes a part of the group. Iris was a great character who I was never quite sure of, I couldn't decide whether she really loved Oscar or if she and her brother were in some dastardly plot together that would leave poor Oscar hurt and bewildered.
My biggest gripe is that the book doesn't start with Oscar walking home from work past the college chapel. Instead, there is a preface that fast-forwards to the book's climax, where we learn that it will all end in tragedy and three people will end up dead. Presumably this is supposed to intrigue us and make us want to read on, but I hated knowing what was coming, and the book was robbed of much of its tension and intrigue because of it.
There were some interesting secondary characters in The Bellwether Revivals. Iris and Eden's parents are a little stereotypical but quite fun to read about; with Theo as a blustering surgeon who insists he knows best and blithely ignores his son's disturbing behaviour, and his meek little wife who agrees with almost everything and rarely lets slip an opinion of her own. "The Flock", as Eden's best friends are known, become more endearing as the book progresses and they become warmer towards Oscar. Then there is Mr Paulson, a crusty old professor who is Oscar's favourite resident at the nursing home, and his long lost love, Herbert Crest, now dying a slow, painful death from a brain tumour. There is a lot of history between these two, and I was sad that we never quite got to grips with their backstory. In fact, I had so many unanswered questions about them it made me wonder if the author might be thinking of writing a new book about their relationship as young men - I'm sure it would be an interesting read.
I did wonder about Oscar and whether such a person could possibly exist in the real world. He left school at sixteen, has working class parents who have no interest in him bettering himself and believe that books are a waste of time, he works as a care assistant, and yet he's erudite, gentle, able to read Descartes with relative ease, and rich geniuses from Cambridge are quite happy to include him and be his friends. I would love the world to be filled with people like Oscar, but sadly, it isn't. There are many, many references to class in this book, and the author is obviously making a point about how education should be for everyone and wealth and privilege don't necessarily make for nice well-rounded members of society, but it's all a bit heavy-handed.
I did enjoy The Bellwether Revivals, but perhaps not as much as I had hoped I would after reading the reviews. I'll give it three and a half stars.