Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Rating: B, 3 stars
What I’m Talking About:
Having loved Diane Setterfield’s debut book, The Thirteenth Tale, I waited anxiously for her to give us a second offering. During that lengthy six year wait, I recommended it to others, reviewed it for book club, and extolled the virtues of Setterfield’s craftsmanship with words. Really, that book was an ode to the love of reading.
With that as predecessor, Bellman & Black had a lot to live up to and the longer the wait, the higher the expectations. Fair or not, for me, Bellman & Black did not quite rise to the occasion.
What I did want most and got was Setterfield’s methodic way of observing and describing people, moving within the spheres of their influence. In this book she highlights how they overlap now and again, exhibit strengths and weaknesses, and within a generation or two are all but forgotten. I especially loved this passage:
Dora’s nights of remembering grew less profitable as time passed. She still did it sometimes, but the practice gradually lost its ability to comfort. In part, she told herself, it was because she had worn the memories thin from overuse. Like some of the coins they used to clean, the relief had been worn away.
It’s a book that whispers rather than yells, making the point, if none other: that what you do in life matters more than the pace at which you accomplish it. Bellman works at frenetic pace, making sacrifices right and left that impact his health and relationships. He doesn’t do it because it makes him happy per se, but rather as payment for the happiness he has previously enjoyed and the success which seems to follow him in everything he does. If he pays enough, can he cheat death? Can he so justify his own existence that he puts death at bay?
His happiness and his success, which he had taken to be solid things, hewn out of his own effort and talent, had proved as fragile as a dandelion clock; all it took was for this unsuspecting competitor to release his breath and the seedhead disappeared.
As much as I enjoyed chewing on her apt descriptions and felicitous characterizations, the story dragged slower and slower until its conclusion. Think Meet Joe Black, but without the love story—more Hitchcock, more cerebral. Still, its worst crime is that it opens itself to multiple questions which it doesn’t even attempt to answer. The conclusion was poignant, but I’m not sure it was enough to justify the length of the journey.
I found myself yearning for more plot. I have no doubt that book clubs will turn to Bellman & Black so they can theorize, pull it apart, and ferret out the deep meanings, but no one would go see this movie. Discussion is well and good, but it’s not fulfilling to the solo reader. It was especially lacking in development of female characters. They were present, but Bellman’s daughter Dora was the only woman who got more than a few lines of expansion. We should have had more of his wife Lizzie. Rooks, the birds, were used as a literary device and threaded all throughout the book. It was the rooks that brought the book to its final conclusion, but I don’t think they had the mysterious impact Setterfield was trying to convey. They were mostly a nuisance in a story that annoyed me because they had the potential to be something more. Don’t dismiss this book. I did like it, but it is definitely a book to be examined rather than consumed.
3 stars: Liked it, but I had some issues – recommend (B)
About the Book:
As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforseen and terrible consequences. The killing of a rook with his catapult is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. And by the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, he seems indeed, to be a man blessed by fortune.
Until tragedy strikes, and the stranger in black comes, and William Bellman starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, he enters into a bargain. A rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business.
And Bellman & Black is born.
Release Date: November 5, 2013
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Genre: Gothic Ghost
Format(s): Hardcover (336 pgs), e-book, audio
Book Source: NetGalley
Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield