What a frustrating read. On the one hand – a genuinely interesting story, at times completely compelling. On the other…Just bad writing. Not especially, woefully, tearing-across-the-sky-trailing-flames-of-awfulness bad. But bad all the same. It’s rare to read a novel that scores so fluently and easily at one end of the pitch only to go and completely stuff it up at the other end almost immediately. This could be the Manchester City of contemporary writing.
The story in short: Oscar Lowe is a slightly detached, sort-of bookish type, age 20, living a determinedly quiet life as a care assistant at an old people’s home in Cambridge. He is escaping from a miserable life of narrowed horizons and poverty of both the spiritual and actual kinds, in Watford (just in case we don’t feel sorry enough for him). He is drawn into the orbit of the Bellwether family through a brother and sister, both undergraduates at the university. Iris, studying medicine, is vivacious and slightly over-achieving. Her older brother, Eden, is an organ scholar at King’s and is completely over-achieving in everything academic. Oscar starts seeing Iris and is brought into the charmed sub-Brideshead circle of Eden and Iris’ friends. Iris is convinced that Eden is mentally disturbed and initially wants Oscar to help her to gather evidence of her brother’s particular malaise before it spins out of control. The charismatic, obsessive Eden has one very particular theory about the power of music and how it can be used to hypnotise, anaesthatise and even effect cures for all kinds of injuries and illnesses.
The story follows Oscar’s attempts to stay afloat among this circle – especially after Iris’ initial antagonism towards her brother is replaced by an almost cultish worship when Eden, it would seem, uses music to help her overcome an injury. Along the way, an expert in personality disorders is called upon to help, and questions of the limits of empirical science and the (psychological) power of belief are debated. The conclusion I won’t discuss – that wouldn’t be fair as there is a good degree of suspense generated around the question of whether Eden is an out-and-out fake, a hugely damaged personality who believes in his own claims to be able to heal through music, or someone who does have access to some arcane ways of refreshing the parts other paradigms cannot reach.
This is a first novel, just published, so perhaps I should be gentle. At least to start with. As I said above, the actual story does appeal, partly because the character of Eden Bellwether is well drawn – he’s arrogant, manipulative and not quite knowable, seen as he is mainly from Oscar’s perspective. The suspense in the book keeps you reading – both in terms of wanting to know whether the book is going to side with the real world or endorse a “supernatural” framework, through Eden being exposed as a charlatan, or being otherwise shown to have some real but inexplicable ability to cure, and also through the galloping series of events used to set up and follow through these questions.
Where the book drags on its leaden boots is in just about everything else. Where to start? Every review I’ve seen of this book mentions Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” as an influence, with Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on backing vocals. These novels are ‘influences’ in the way that, say, spending a night in a casualty ward is ‘influenced’ by being smacked in the mouth repeatedly with a piano. There’s nothing subtle about this. Tartt is the main jumping-off point. There’s a particular kind of borrowed cosiness taken from Tartt’s novel’s sense of an elite, secluded academic world of privilege in which arrogant license among the inmates rubs up against unworldly naivete, with horrible consequences for the characters being the result. It’s what kept Inspector Morse in business, on TV and on the page, for years. In its American form it has produced Donna Tartt’s (so far unrepeatable) success. Over here, you’ve got that whole candlelit-colleges and bumps-in-the-night tradition stretching from M R James to Andrew Taylor’s “Anatomy Of Ghosts”, which I may have to blog about. J K Rowling cannily played on our enduring love of privileged, secretive, twisty-turny academic settings with the Gormenghast-lite of Hogwarts. Nothing wrong with any of this at all – unless this sub-genre (what shall we call it? Oxbridge Gothic?) seems – as I say – borrowed, without any real love and fascination for that world – or even real hate and fascination. Either way – an imagined world, whether on this planet or not, has to be fully inhabited by the writer. If he or she doesn’t want to get the sand of a place between the toes – why should we?
In this novel, Cambridge is just a setting – a shorthand way of saying “They’re all dead clever and stuck-up, you know”. It’s lazy, and the laziness is exposed at a number of points. The undergraduate characters refer to living “off campus”, an expression which no-one at Cambridge, at any point in the last 900 years, has ever actually used….what with the defining fact of Oxford and Cambridge being: they are collegiate universities. Benjamin Wood doesn’t even appear to have done the most perfunctory, Wikipedia fly-past of research. The “campus” howler is repeated several times and we are asked to see Eden and Iris as something special because they have permission to live “off campus”. What is this cobblers? Lots of people studying at Cambridge live outside their colleges. I did, for a year, in a fondly remembered little house on Petworth Street. Do mistakes like this matter or am I being petty and prickly and really quite an Oxbridge snob? Well, I think it does matter. A fair number of people attracted to this book will be, like myself, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge lured in by the possibility of vicariously reliving our gilded youth. But there’s no particular portrait of being at Cambridge which emerges from this book. In fact, there is only one interior scene within a university building, I think – it’s in the first chapter. Oscar, cutting through King’s one evening after his shift at the care home, hears the evensong in the famous Chapel and can’t help but be drawn in. It’s here he meets Iris and, after a couple of pages of chit-chat in which her character is all but printed on a T-shirt for Oscar’s convenience (and ours), we’re off. But there’s no sense that Cambridge plays any other part than setting the scene. The rest of the novel offers clichés of Cambridge – the postcard views, quite literally – which any dazed tourist on a whistlestop tour of Merrie Englande can take in from a quick schlep up King’s Parade before getting back in the coach and heading for Stratford Upon Avon. There is no real sense of what being an undergraduate at Cambridge is like (indeed, working on my 20 years out of date memories of how things work at Cambridge, I think at one point in the novel Iris would have been required to ‘degrade’ and miss the rest of the academic year, taking it again). Given this, why not set the novel in Durham? Bristol? Leeds? York? Ah, well – they wouldn’t quite have the kudos, now would they? Wood has no real interest in making Cambridge other than a vaguely pretty backdrop which signposts “elite” and “clever”. In which case, the academic snobbery is entirely on his part. The least he could do is get the details right. It’s as though he’d written a novel set in the golfing world and continually referred to a player scoring a “raven” on the “twenty-first” hole.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the novel had taken the opportunity to be daring and – shock! – present a novel set in Cambridge in which the university and its world are, literally and figuratively, only ever seen from outside. That did seem to be the point of having Oscar as a protagonist – and it raises another literary ancestor spirit for this novel, with shades of Jude Fawley being felt at points when Oscar’s lonely, closed-off existence is described. (Does he really have absolutely no friends whatsoever in Cambridge?) Something has drawn him to work in Cambridge, of all places – some kind of vague need for proximity to what he sees as the greater, wider, fuller world his upbringing denied him – but this never comes into focus. It feels like his family back in Watford is always about to become a factor in the story, but they prove ultimately to be a bit of short-hand local colour in a similar way to the hand-me-down descriptions of students on their way to May Balls. (Note: no-one calls them “formals”; that’s an American thing, like a “prom”. “Formal Hall” – OK. But not “formals”, surely? Maybe things have changed…). Oscar seems to have chosen to live quietly in Cambridge, but if he has a particular reason or hope of gaining some kind of cultural osmosis, this isn’t really explained. Slightly outrageously, at his care home he has a particular relationship with just one resident – a former professor of English Literature, who is able to hand him the improving books he craves. What are the chances, eh? That felt like a hokey coincidence. It was compounded by this professor’s former lover being a world expert on personality disorders. Despite living in the US, the latter is able to relocate himself long enough to assist with the investigation of Eden’s pathology. Even better – he has a handy terminal condition of his own which makes him a useful volunteer/sacrificial lamb for testing out Eden’s claims. There’s no especial sense of living in the “real Cambridge” (I remember a lamp post half way across Midsummer Common which had been daubed “Reality Checkpoint”, signifying that you were either entering of leaving the real world, depending on whether you were heading in the direction of the town centre or not…Wonder if it’s still there?) although Wood presumably has a map and a restaurant guide judging by how keen he is to get street names and reasonably priced international cuisine mentioned. Again, Oscar’s loosely sketched “everyday Cambridge” world feels as, well, loosely sketched as the “You’ve-seen-Brideshead-right?” depiction of university life.
The level of contrivance doesn’t stop with the handy care-home Yoda who crustily chucks the right books at Oscar. Iris and Eden’s prickly parents (a well-drawn pushy, arrogant surgeon father and a less convincing religiose mother) live in Grantchester, the village just outside Cambridge, in a helpfully secluded, massive house. Good job, really. If they lived in, say, London, the plotting of the novel would have needed a lot more thought as the jaunts between the Porters’ Lodge at King’s (pretty much all we see of Being At Cambridge) and the Bellwether home would be much more difficult to manage.
But perhaps the most unswallowable bit for me was the whole Oscar/Iris relationship. Iris and Eden are painted as members of an elite within an elite – part of an exclusive society within the exclusive and rarefied world of Cambridge, haughtily set apart from even the other students through their wealth and assumptions of intellectual superiority. Yet Oscar is accepted into this with indecent – possibly incompetent – haste. It just happens. He happens to walk through King’s on the right night. He gets chatting to Iris. He’s invited to hear her play the cello. The deal is done. Again – this isn’t snobbery…it’s practicality and credibility. The problem is not that Oscar is a guy on minimum wage working in a care home who hits it off with an undergraduate reading medicine at Cambridge. The problem is: it wouldn’t matter who Oscar was and what he does – “town and gown” so rarely mix at Cambridge, so superficially interact, that the writer is asking us to take something massively unusual on board without any sense that he himself recognises how unlikely it is. And then you add in the fact that Iris is studying to be a doctor. I knew a few people reading medicine at Cambridge. Or rather: I almost did. Those guys are busy. Those guys are 24/7. Those guys barely have time to make friends outside their immediate medical circle, let alone with regular people from the regular world. Oh – and we’re also asked to see Iris, Eden and three of their friends as part of a closed circle within that, with (as mentioned earlier) the proof of their unusualness being the spurious, inaccurate “fact” that Iris and Eden are permitted to live “off campus” in a private house owned by their parents. Unlike the hundreds of Cambridge students who just live in houses around Cambridge because…um…they want to, or have to because their college can’t provide three years’ worth of rooms.
It’s a mess really, and all goes back to the sense that Wood has absolutely no feel for the world he is writing about and about the size of the leaps he’s asking the reader to make. Even the archness of the chapter titles (“A Reversible Lack Of Awareness”; “The Ordering Of Material Affairs”) is half-hearted – not quite arch enough to bridge the Cam, as it were. If he’d made Oscar one of the catering staff at Downing (Iris’ college – not that you’d know it from its virtual absence) that might just have allowed the meeting and relationship to be pulled off. If he’d made Iris more rebellious, more contrary, such that she picks Oscar out of a petulant desire to play at being a Bad Girl, that might have worked; her brother suggests that Iris sees Oscar as no more than a bit of rough, but that’s presented as clear manipulation on Eden’s part and isn’t borne out by the straightforwardly fantasised way in which this Princess gets down with the Pauper. Seriously: she’s presented as a do-or-die Cambridge medical student. There’s no way, then, that she’s spending lazy mornings lying about in her care worker boyfriend’s grubby bedsit. She’d be at lectures, what with the you-attend-or-you-get-kicked-out aspect of studying medicine – which Wood might know if he’d done just a bit of research.
Occasionally, there are bits where we are told about Iris worrying about exams, but she comes across as nothing more than a school girl fretting over a test; Wood’s view of Cambridge is that it’s a kind of boarding school. That could be made to work, but I never felt this came from anything other than utter vagueness. ‘There’s ivy and libraries and old buildings with gargoyles on them’ seems to be his grasp of what defines the university. There’s nothing iconoclastic or rebellious about Iris; she’s utterly conventional. He could just have gone down the route of making Oscar the fish-out-water working class kid who pitches up at Cambridge as a student and thus falls into the Bellwether orbit. OK – quite clichéd and sailing really too close to Donna Tartt’s M.O. in “The Secret History”. But it would still be better than what we have. Their relationship never feels credible and Oscar – crucially – never comes to life. What it is he wants, how exactly he might feel in a relationship with someone who lives in an utterly other world, is never presented convincingly beyond predictable anxieties about table manners and clothes. For all that the Bellwether circle – its intimates self-consciously refer to themselves as “the flock” – are supposed to be this uber-elite, they are actually charming and accommodating and not especially bright. That could be made to work, in order to wrong-foot the reader, but it feels more like a lack of planning than a conscious choice. Because we never once see Eden, Iris or their friends interact with any other members of the university – no fellow undergraduates annoyed by their pretensions, no dons concerned by their influence and antics – they exist without a context. Iris is a kind of off-the-peg posh school girl fantasy figure; Oscar is another kind of shop-worn fantasy – the poetic loner, adrift in the world’s roughness – but there’s no poetry to him. Given the obstacles to these two people meeting and having any sort of relationship, you’d have to believe theirs is some astonishing love affair – but it’s straightforward stuff, bar the lurking presence of Iris’s domineering older brother. Oscar is a sort of minimum wage Jude, but nothing gets to him too deeply and, in the novel’s denouement, you don’t feel much doubt about his ability to do some conventionally heroic stuff. We spend so much time hearing his perspective – in prose that rarely achieves much spark or roll – that I had to wonder why the first person perspective wasn’t used. Exactly how vulnerable or assertive Oscar might be never quite gains a believable rhythm and this proves a serious failing. In a novel much concerned with testing claims of truthfulness and the fallibility of memory/perception, it might have been better to offer Oscar’s perspective more directly, allowing a further, greater level of ambiguity.
If it was this bad, why did I keep reading? Well, as I said, the story itself (when you get past the deficiencies in the world of the story) does keep you interested. The scenes at the Bellwether home where Eden’s theories are put to the test in semi-diabolic musical performances do have a convincing, Gothic claustrophobia – as does the memorable, imaginatively gripping chapter concerning a childhood memory Iris has of her brother attempting to “revive” a dead bird . There are some interesting digressions about personality disorders and music, and the character of Theo, the overbearing paterfamilias whose sins are visited upon his children, is well presented; indeed, it’s noticeable that the two out-and-out unsympathetic characters in the book – Eden and his father – leap off the page with far more energy than all the rest of the (small) group of figures acting out the book’s debates put together.
So, a frustrating read. And something now nags at me: the sense that this will be snapped up for a film or TV adaptation, in which the combination of heritage and high-class, secretive oddballery will suggest easy pickings in terms of viewers. For me, though, this one graduates with a barely scraped pass and not much in the way of honours.