BENJAMIN Wood’s debut novel is an ambitious exploration of doubt, hope and faith, says Lee Randall.
Where do we draw the line between genius and madness? Can fear inspire the scientifically-minded to turn to the spiritual world? Why does music move us so deeply – and can that power be harnessed?
Big questions all, they reflect the ambition behind Benjamin Wood’s debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals. Set in Cambridge, it’s narrated by 20-year-old Oscar Lowe, who works in a nursing home. He’s lured into King’s College Chapel during evensong, enchanted by the ethereal sound of organ music. Afterwards, he meets beautiful Iris Bellwether and falls in with her eccentric, gifted clique, which revolves around her brother, Eden, a brilliant music student with messianic tendencies. As he loses his grip on sanity, the novel circles back to the dramatic conclusion foreshadowed in its opening prelude.
Music and storytelling have long been Wood’s preferred modes of expression, he says. Growing up in Merseyside, he wrote non-stop, inspired by the poetry and Roald Dahl stories his mum read to her three sons. “I always had the urge to be creative, and that was my first outlet. I also did acting at school. Around the time of my A-levels, I was more and more interested in creating music.”
He dropped out of his exams and, aged 17, moved south to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. “I got about as close as you could get to a record deal without signing your name on the dotted line, which was both rewarding and really frustrating, at that age, when it’s all that you have and all that you want.”
A few gentle words from his supportive mum convinced Wood to get an arts qualification followed by a degree from the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston, where he became immersed in screenwriting. Next he won a Commonwealth scholarship, which took him to Vancouver for two years to earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. “It was the first time I’d ever been away from home for that long, and an amazing experience – amazing city, amazing people.”
Metaphysical issues fascinate him, and faith versus science is an issue he continually contemplates. “The idea was to frame a story around a character who believed he could use music to either heal people, or influence them. I knew that at some of my lowest points I’d turn to music to console and uplift me, and without fail it would – not fix everything but make me feel better for a moment. I wanted to see if that feeling had ever been looked at by science. The more I read into music theory and aesthetics, this name Johann Mattheson kept coming up. He’s mentioned in the novel, and very much a real person.
“[Scientists] are studying the effect of musical resonance and how it affects us. I wanted to think of a character in a Dickensian way: he claims he’s so capable, so gifted and can do something nobody else can. I wanted the reader to fluctuate in their belief in him. The first part of the book is about doubt, the second is about faith and the last is about hope.”
Wood is, I suggest, fonder of Eden than I was as a reader. Smiling, he confesses: “I think he’s charismatic. I wanted him to have a kind of magnetic quality, so even if readers didn’t necessarily find him warm, other characters would want to be in his company. I am always drawn to great eccentric people. I loved Miss Havisham, who has gone through so much emotional turmoil that you can’t help but feel for her. In the end, my feeling is that Eden is not a good person, but I wanted readers to feel what a shame it was, in light of what he could have been.
“There are two sides to how we attempt to understand who we are. One is scientific and rigorous in its methodology, and has a very set way of looking at us as being fundamentally chemical and biological beings. Sometimes science is too readily dismissive of the other side, and certainly religion can be too dismissive of science. Which is why hope is so important. The scientist [in the novel, who is] on his way out with a brain tumour is drawn toward wanting to live, so he puts himself in situations where, as a scientist, he ordinarily wouldn’t be. He’s trying to find out what hope is, and his thesis is that it’s a form of madness.”
Wood himself isn’t religious, but nor, he says, is he a Richard Dawkins-style atheist. “My feeling is that we’re more than brains in a can. I don’t buy into any religious dogma, but I find it bleak to think that we’re here and we die and it’s meaningless. I have to feel like there’s something more to who we are. I hope that in my writing I’ll get one scintilla closer to understanding it. Consciousness is what fascinates me most and what I’ll continue to write about until I exhaust it.” • The Bellwether Revivals is out now from Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. Benjamin Wood is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today.
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