Bellman & Black
As I mentioned in my Hallowe’en/ Samhain post,
I have been reading Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield. I anticipated enjoying this book greatly, based on my experience of The Thirteenth Tale. Unfortunately, that anticipation was misplaced. In most book reviews, I hesitate to give away too much, but in this instance it doesn’t make a difference in your experience of the story. I will reserve the ending.
You get the highlights in the book description on the dust cover. When he is a boy, William has three other friends—all born in the same month of the same year—with whom he runs and plays. As boys did in Victorian England, one of their pastimes is to shoot at things with slingshots. One day William lines up an impossible shot aimed at an immature rook perched in a tree and, against all odds, he hits and kills it. Then there are ominous pronouncements about how rooks never forget, rooks are smart, rooks will avoid you if they perceive you as evil, etc.
William grows up, forgets about this incident, is taken on at his uncle’s mill, and discovers that he has an uncanny sense of how to better a business. He revamps everything about the mill, endearing himself to both his uncle and the workers. When his uncle dies, the heir, his cousin Charles, an amateur painter and art collector who prefers to spend his time in Italy, lets William get on with running the business for a large share of the profits. He does well, takes a wife, has four children, and then…everyone starts to die.
After his uncle, it’s the three boys with whom he grew up, who drop one by one for various reasons; then a fever comes to town and takes away all of his family but one. And at each funeral, he sees the same man, dressed in black, hovering around the churchyard, giving him significant looks, winks and smiles, but somehow eluding him whenever William tries to engage the man. Finally, at the last funeral, William, desperate to save his daughter Dora, talks to the man, and seems to think they have struck a deal to keep Bellman’s one remaining child alive. From this man (supposedly), Bellman gets the impetus to open a large emporium in London that deals with every aspect of the death industry, from coffins to mourning clothes to stationery to gravestones. It is to be a magnificent edifice, five stories high and boasting its own live-in staff of seamstresses, and Bellman regards the elusive Mr. Black (as William has christened him) as a sleeping partner.
End of part one. Although it’s taken a long time (and a whole lot of details about running the mill) to get there, you’re thinking oh, this is where William Bellman starts interacting with and attempting to placate Mr. Black, who is somehow the nemesis who has brought all these deaths into William Bellman’s life. Hmmm.
This is supposed to be a ghost story. There are no ghosts. Bellman is indeed haunted—by his numerous dead, and by Mr. Black—but he manages not to realize it, because he keeps himself so frantic with establishing and running his businesses that he evades every thought in his head not involved with inventories, displays, products, sales figures, and improvements. You keep reading, and waiting. You get more tidbits of information about rooks. You get more descriptions of William’s evasive actions that keep his business thriving but deprive him of all self-knowledge. You finally get to the end, and…what?!
I don’t know what to say about this book. It is beautifully written, and it is obviously about life and death and grief, and yet its main character does not grieve, scarcely acknowledges either the living or the dead, and manages to live in a psychological wasteland of his own contriving. You could call it Victorian gothic, or psychological fiction, or literary fiction, but in the end, it’s 300+ pages of description about the processes, not the thoughts or feelings, of one man’s life. And while I found the technical details of both the milling process from shearing to finished dyed cloth, and even the conception and set-up of the Bellman & Black emporium to be fascinating from an historical perspective, it’s not enough to carry the rest. Bellman is basically running from both death and grief, but it isn’t particularly ominous, or powerful, or poignant, or cathartic. It is lyrical, but it is slow, and its conclusion, for me, was incredibly disappointing and somewhat vague. I can’t say it was a bad book…but I honestly couldn’t recommend it. Which makes me sad.
In my previous review, I mentioned another book with the same feel as this one, in terms of the lyrical narrative and kind of weird premise. The book is Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal. In that story the protagonist, Jeremy Johnson Johnson (his parents both had the same last name) is guided in life by a voice in his head. It is, specifically, the voice of Jacob Grimm, one of the two renowned Brothers Grimm who collected the fairy tales. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil that is being whispered about in the space between this world and the next and apparently threatens him. But when town troublemaker Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy, a grim (pardon the pun) set of events is put into motion. Many fairy tales don’t have happy endings…
This was such a strange, fanciful, weird, interesting book. Because it’s mostly told from the viewpoint of Jacob Grimm, the narration has an old-fashioned quality that makes you feel like you’re in a fairy tale taking place in the 1800s, but it is in fact set in a 20th-century small town, with electricity, television, and all the amenities. It’s an odd mix, but it works, and the story has an arc with a satisfying ending. I offer it as an alternative.