I’m itching to discuss this book, and where better to begin a discussion than on my blog? After reading, if you have or haven’t read the book, feel free to engage me in fiery debate. Bellman & Black is the sophomore novel by Diane Setterfield, of The Thirteenth Tale fame. It’s been a long seven years since that glorious debut novel entered our bookshelves and our hearts, and I, for one, waited with tense anticipation for Bellman & Black. I found it in Barnes & Noble around Christmas and my friend had to pry it out of my hands (the hardcover price was steep even after my member discount). Undaunted, I asked for it, and received it, for Christmas. I thrilled.
Bellman & Black promises many squeal-inducing, shiny, book-lover’s-dream kind of things: a gripping story, sparkling characterization, generously smacked with the supernatural and a sense of pagan magic. I wish I could say it delivers flawlessly on all fronts, but the truth is, this book sort of falls flat. The potential is there, but the plot falls into stagnation and the characterization isn’t just faulty: it’s almost nonexistent. If good writing should ensnare all your senses, Bellman & Black fails the test. It piques one’s interest, but doesn’t keep it, unfortunately.
What’s annoying is that it starts out wonderfully. The novel begins with the death of our enigmatic protagonist, William Bellman. In this one scene, we learn that Bellman has lost his wife and three of his children, and is contemplating his life and its regrets. In the next, William is a young boy of ten playing with other boys his age. William has a catapult, a slingshot of sorts, so perfectly made that the other boys marvel at it, eager for William to showcase its abilities.
Reluctantly yet with a measure of pride, William selects a rook in a tree, loads his catapult, and shoots the rook dead with one shot. It’s an impossible shot, a beautiful arc, a perfect trajectory of rock and rook, but William almost instantly regrets it. He killed the bird and he’s guilty, ashamed. He spends the next week sick in bed and “applied his ten-year-old genius and power to the greatest feat he had ever attempted: forgetting. He very largely succeeded.”
William Bellman grows up into a dashing seventeen-year-old, loved and respected by most in town. He has astonishing business acumen and despite his bastard status, secures a place as secretary in his uncle’s successful cotton mill. Bellman marries a girl he loves passionately, takes over the mill and turns it into a formidable business due to his brilliant mind and dedication, and fathers four children, the oldest of which is his daughter Dora. William considers himself a lucky man, blessed beyond the norm and expecting nothing to disrupt his happiness and success. William’s luck does hold–until a fever sweeps through town and claims the lives of his beloved wife, and his three youngest children. Death seems to follow Bellman wherever he goes, and whether it is the funeral of his mother, his uncle, his cousin, or his wife and children, there is a mysterious man in the back, never making contact, driving Bellman crazy.
All of this sounds eerie, chilling, gripping, and it should be. I think this novel fails the most in characterization. William Bellman isn’t a well-rounded character. He has some interesting qualities, but really, he’s just a “good” person with an above average brain for business. He is a workaholic, really. He loves his wife, his children, he is universally beloved and admired. He has a good singing voice. And I think that’s about it. The only distinguishing feature of Bellman’s is his inability to deal with grief. This makes Bellman more of an allegory than a person.
Another flaw lies with the narrative itself. So much of the book is devoted to minutiae about Bellman’s mill and then later, with his London emporium. Yes, Setterfield, we know how devoted Bellman is. We know he’s a workaholic, we know that he doesn’t socialize and shuns human contact and sleeps at his desk: there is really no need to drill it into our heads. There leaves little for character development and actual events. The structure is interesting but not impressive: the novel is interspersed with what seems to be excerpts from an encyclopedia/anecdotal history written by rooks. Readers are led to believe that the bird Bellman shot out of the tree as a child is stalking him in some way, reaping revenge.
There is a story much older than this one in which two ravens…were companions and advisers to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Though, the other Muninn, which meant Memory. They lived in a magic ash tree where borders of many worlds came together, and from its branches they flew blithely between worlds, gathering information for Odin. Other creatures could not cross the borders from one world to another, but Thought and Memory flew where they pleased, and came back laughing.
Thought and Memory had a great many offspring, all of whom were gifted with great mental powers allowing them to accumulate and pass on a good deal of knowledge from their ancestors.
The rooks that lived in Will Bellman’s oak tree were descendants of Thought and Memory. The rook that fell was one of their many-times-great-grandchildren…Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget. (124)
Setterfield undoubtedly meant it to atmospheric and foreboding, but I found it kind of comical that rooks write and keep a little bird book of their history. It came off as either cute like a cartoon or weird and unbelievable.
Most of the novel is given up to exhausting detail about Bellman’s business, christened Bellman & Black after the mysterious man, but there is an underlying allegory that doesn’t save the novel, but makes it more interesting to read, at least toward the end. Bellman is an allegory: for regret, guilt, shame, and grief that is consistently pushed away. Bellman has never learned to deal with the abandonment of this father, the death of his beloved mother, the destruction of his entire family. The rooks, made of thought and memory as they are, serve to remind Bellman and the readers of the danger of unprocessed grief. In this way, Setterfield makes a commentary on human nature that is worth making, but the format–and execution–of the novel, ultimately fall short of expectations.
There are many unanswered questions, and the novel ends somewhat unsatisfactorily. The only consolation I had from the disappointment of this book was the last scene, where Bellman’s daughter Dora witnesses the magnificent glory of a “rooking escapade:” watching rooks in their natural habitat:
Dora glitters, serenely exultant. It is what a rooking escapade does to a human. She looks as if she has gathered all the glory of the world into herself. To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life…Dora has been set right within herself…She will live the best she can for as long as she can…And rooks will paint mysteries on the sky at dawn and dusk for as long as the world exists. (324)
Dora represents everything Bellman does not: the ability to deal gently with grief, the tendency to cherish memories to make one stronger, introspection, creativity, artistic thought. She was my favorite character and unfortunately wildly neglected.
Setterfield, D. Bellman & Black. 2013. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.