Beyond talent, what does it take to make musical history? Does it help to be a little mad, mystical, misanthropic – even a tad megalomaniacal? It seems that whether you're Jim Morrison or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, magnetism is at least partly key.
Eden Bellwether has the makings of a musical legend. In addition to being a brilliant organist and composer, he has a particularly persuasive personality, the kind that could convince cats they'd rather be sheep. In fact, his friends aren't entirely off-key when they refer to their close-knit circle as "the flock." Spellbound by his charisma, they often seem to follow his eccentric lead with near blind faith.
Benjamin Wood's debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, draws readers in, much as Eden's organ draws Oscar, a young nursing-home care assistant, into King's College Chapel, at Cambridge. It doesn't matter that Oscar is an atheist. Before he knows it, he's sat through an entire service – just as the reader has stayed up all night, seduced by Wood's vivid prose, swept up in a crescendo of suspense.
It's at the chapel that Oscar meets Eden's sister, Iris, marking the beginning of a heart-wrenching romance, and a rather twisted relationship with the upper-class Bellwether family. But even before this, the reader has goose bumps from Wood's clever prelude.
The novel opens on an eerie tone, "a bruise of clouds spreading darkly across the Grantchester sky." Flashing forward to an accident involving dead bodies on the Bellwethers' property, Wood warns us that things will end badly. The soundtrack, one imagines, would wash over us in F sharp minor – "the key that's most characterized by sadness," according to Eden's hero, Johann Mattheson.
But who doesn't love a sad song from time to time? And, what is it about an accident that makes people slow down to look? Undeterred, the reader listens on with a swelling sense of urgency to find out who, how and why.
Eventually, one also wants to determine whether Eden is a gifted healer or, as Oscar and Iris suspect, just plain sick. The organist's highly theatrical rituals are creepy, yet suggestive of the supernatural. Enlisting his "flock" to help carry out strange experiments, he hypnotizes, and allegedly heals, his subjects with music. For a time, he seems to enjoy some measure of success, planting a seed of doubt in even the most skeptical minds.
Though Eden's narcissism is despicable, his character raises questions, such as: How slippery is the slope between madness and genius? And what exactly is the scope of music's healing powers? Since answers are muddied by the clamour of violence, readers seeking tidy truths won't find them here. They may, however, close the book feeling inspired to probe the issues further.
Turning the last page, one might wonder, for instance: If Mozart were alive today, would he be diagnosed with a personality disorder? And, if so, isn't it ironic that some say his music has health benefits? One study shows that it helps decrease the stress hormones in ICU patients; another claims it helps preterm babies grow.
Such research would surely make Eden crow.
Kimberly Bourgeois is a Montreal poet, singer and songwriter. Information on her Kimberly and the Dreamtime project can be found on Facebook and Myspace, and her debut album is available on several digital platforms.