Praise be, a brilliant debut novel reminiscent of the moral explorations of Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith but younger in temperament, more directly passionate and theatrical.

I’m excited about The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, on sale July 2nd from Viking. I’ve just finished the galley and if you are in the business and can get an ARC, don’t hesitate to get your hands on this one. Wow!

The action takes place in the environs of Cambridge. BW has written a realist novel, drawing on the classic concerns of English fiction since the Victorians to use literature to explore ethics and the contrasting and mixing domains of good and evil. The ingenious Benjamin Wood has introduced a transgressive element dead center: a messianic character who is determined to transcend the realist contours of the plot.

We are presented with Oscar, a 20-something care assistant in a nursing home framed by wisteria that is not far from Cambridge University. Oscar doesn’t have his qualifications certified. That is, he is not what we would call a registered nurse. He’s sort of a nurse’s aid. And Oscar isn’t sure he wants to be qualified. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

His favorite elderly patient is Doctor Paulsen, in his eighties. Dr. Paulsen is a retired literature professor who keeps a large library in his room at the retirement home. Oscar borrows books from his favorite patient and it’s clear that Oscar is college material.

He’s working class. Wood describes Oscar’s family as always having low expectations for themselves. Basically it’s work and telly, work and telly. At the nursing home, Oscar works 8 or 10 or 12 hour shifts, falls onto his bed in his modest one room flat, and lies unconscious until it’s time to get up and start the cycle again. So Oscar is drifting into the same pattern he learned from his parents.

But one evening (this sounds like a fairy tale or an improbable upsurge of romanticism in the story), Oscar passes Kings College Chapel on the way home from work. There is an open-to-the-public performance of evensong taking place. Entranced by the singing and the extraordinary eloquence of the organ, Oscar goes in to listen. Oscar is an atheist but he is drawn in by the experience.

That fateful decision, walking into the church on impulse, creates the novel. In the church, he starts up a casual conversation with Iris Bellwether, a Cambridge undergrad. It’s her hyper-talented brother, with the extraordinary name of Eden Bellwether, who is playing the organ. Eden is probably the most gifted musicology student that Cambridge has ever seen. The whole Bellwether clan is remarkable for its wealth and over-achieving ethic. The father of the siblings, Theo, is an eminent surgeon, now retired.

Iris and Oscar hit it off. But it’s Eden who places the ultimate seal of approval on Oscar. It’s very important to Iris that her brother likes Oscar. Benjamin Wood has formed the first of several complex triangles that underpin the plot of The Bellwether Revivals. Eden is like…an icon of charisma in his Cambridge social circle. He’s the leader, the coolest of he cool. Even his talented sister Iris is intimated by him. Iris tells Oscar…their whole social set tells Oscar…that they don’t often have the opportunity to meet ordinary people.

There’s a wonderful scene later in the book where Eden in an offhand conversation with Oscar, uses a phrase that he could have only learned on account of something that Oscar said to Iris in bed. This telegraphs to Oscar that Iris is telling her brother everything about the relationship.

On the other hand, Iris appeals to Oscar to help Eden. Iris worries about her brother. Eden thinks that he’s exceptional. Of course, every student at Cambridge is exceptional, part of an elite. But Eden thinks that his comprehension of the true secrets of music have made him into a virtual god. Eden is the transgressive character that I mentioned in my opening paragraphs. Iris is a brilliant weather vane. During the course of the novel, she shifts from worshipping her brother, to seeing him as a victim of his own delusions, to worshipping him all over again when it looks like Eden really does have remarkable powers.

And as Iris shifts in relation to her brother, she shifts. correspondingly, in relation to her boyfriend. Torn between her charismatic brother and her empathic boyfriend, Iris is in a life-and-death struggle to be herself. That’s the most extraordinary triangular relationship in the narrative. BW keeps you guessing about Eden right through to the terrifying conclusion of the book.

Dear readers of this blog, I have to stop now and continue this discussion of The Bellwether Revivals in another post or maybe another two posts. I feel like the borders of the Three Guys blog are bursting under the strain of Benjamin Wood’s brilliance. I liked this book.