I can’t remember how I came to hear about Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield but it intrigued me:
Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .
Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.
And Bellman & Black is born.
Obviously this is a highly anticipated follow up to a blockbuster debut (and a long wait to boot). I am not usually hooked into these types of publishing phenomena these days but somehow the novel came to my attention, struck my fancy, and I was able to get an ARC from the fine folks at NetGalley.
I am of mixed feelings.
In one sense it was an entertaining example of atmospherics and anticipation in a haunting Gothic style. But on the other the ending was very disappointing. It was one of those books that you mostly enjoy while reading but then come to the end and everything seems to fall apart.
There are two aspects of the story: the supernatural/ghost/rook element and the story of William Bellman. The story begins with the episode above featuring William, a slingshot and a rook. The birds make appearances through the story in various ways (never good) and Setterfield weaves in vignettes of the myths and etymology of rooks.
In this way, Bellman’s life is perceived by the reader as deeply, but mysteriously, connected to this event and thus to the rooks. It haunts the story but William is mostly oblivious. In response to tragedy and death he simply throws himself into work; insisting on bringing order and success through hard work and meticulous, nearly obsessive, attention to detail.
As he works, death hovers in the background and then moves closer in. Each funeral, however, seems to include another person just off stage as it were. Also hovering the background is the character in black; not quite recognizable yet familiar. Bellman shakes it off and presses on.
Even when Bellman finally seems on the path to a life of happiness with a loving wife and adorable children he can’t seem to stop focusing on work and activity; he is running from the quite and thoughts that come with not moving or not thinking and solving problems. Precious moments are lost and time slips away even as Bellman seems to think he can squeeze more out of time than other less disciplined mortals.
But alas, tragedy strikes this idyllic situation and this finally brings him to his knees. And in suicidal desperation, he finally encounters this character and strikes some sort of bargain. Death having taken everything but his daughter Dora, and nearly her, slowly begins to fade back into the shadows. But in its place grows a business idea, hatched in that encounter, that in fact is obsessed with death. The man in black becomes the Mr. Black in Bellman & Black.
Bellman becomes if anything more obsessed with work and details. And once again he slowly becomes isolated from contact, friendship, love, etc. All there is is work; details and details and more details to be worked out. And it pays off in a great deal of wealth which Bellman pours back into the business or into savings.
But the haunting continues. Bellman understands that bargains of this nature have a cost. At first he thought it was simply Dora’s survival but that seems unlikely so he begins to make plans to insure that Mr. Black is handsomely rewarded for his help in launching this venture. This is just another problems to solve surely. But how can you reward a silent partner when they are so silent as to be invisible and untraceable? How do you pay off a debt when you aren’t entirely sure what you agreed to?
The unknowing begins to gnaw at Bellman. It haunts his dreams, stalks his days and slowly eats away at his sanity. When he finally meets Mr. Black it is too late.
There are a couple of things that will likely determine your enjoyment of this novel. First, is style. If you enjoy Setterfield’s style you will enjoy the novel more. I think she does an excellent job of slowly building this sense of dread and even terror in the end. The effect really is haunting. There is a sense that something is hiding just out of reach and that its intent is dark. But she keeps it just out of grasp and just out of focus. This combination of anticipation and atmospherics is entertaining. But it is by no means fast paced and there is a great deal of details surrounding Bellman’s habits and business activities that some will find tedious or overdone.
Second, is your expectations. If you are looking for a traditional ghost story or straightforward Gothic mystery you will be disappointed. It really isn’t a ghost story no matter the marketing, etc.
Lastly, is the matter of plausibility and coherence. If you want everything to make sense, you might struggle with the story as well. It is never really clear exactly the connection between the rook’s death and the later events. Why exactly does Bellman’s life play out as it does and what does the funeral shop have to do with killing a rook as a young boy? And I found the final encounter with Mr. Black confusing.
At the end, I thought mostly “huh?” I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean or how it came together. This in turn cast doubt on what had preceded it. I enjoyed the writing for the most part but the end left me frustrated and a little grumpy. At this point I could sympathize with Kirkus:
Although this novel succeeds in creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, the effect is attenuated by too much detail about the running of mills and department stores and also by a growing puzzlement over why an impulsive childhood transgression, never repeated, should exact such a terrible penalty. A gothic tale in which moments of tedium are relieved by morbidity.
But much like her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, I think you have to suspend belief and immerse yourself in the story to really enjoy it. If you want to pull it apart and analyze it, it falls apart. But if you can just enjoy the details and atmosphere it works. At least if did for me. Mostly. Until the ending …