Jul 19

Book Review: Bellman & Black

Bellman & BlackBellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

This book feels like a skilled author who has contempt for fantasy set out to write a fantasy novel but chickened out at the last minute. Three stars isn’t an accurate rating for the book. The first part is four stars, and the last part is one or two.

The theme of the book is rooks. The main character, William Bellman, kills a rook with a stone when he’s a boy. This event, we are told, will have serious repercussions later. Rooks never forget. Pontificating mini-chapters in a different font bookmark the novel, telling us about the mythology behind rooks. Well, ravens, and crows too, actually, but the author kind of lumps them all together. Kind of like that Aesop tale about the coyote and the sour grapes, or that bible story about the eel that tempted Eve in the garden of Eden. I mean, close enough, right? There’s a black bird on the cover, the death of the rook is a pivotal event (we are told, as rooks do not forget). Rooks fly over the window of William’s daughter, who paints pictures of them. His cousin paints a picture of a rook for her. And the mysterious Mr. Black, it’s implied, is also a rook somehow.

It starts out promising enough. The author does a great job with the characters and their inter-relationships. William, Charles, Fred and Luke all grow up in the same village and while they are the same age with similar skills and interests, we know their lots in life are largely determined by who their fathers are and that their paths will soon diverge. William is the nephew of the owner of the mill in town, but the mill’s owner, Bellman Sr. has never forgiven William’s father for marrying a poor girl without the parents’ permission and therefore William is a bit of a pariah. But he’s allowed to see the mill anyway, and he develops a passion and a skill for business.

William is a born workaholic with ambitions of expanding the business and winning at capitalism. He just loves working so much, and is fascinated by all the details of business. He still has a life, though, and finds time to cavort with barmaids, drink beer with friends, and then to fall in love and marry and start a family. Sometimes a person dies and at the funeral, he always sees a mysterious figure, the elusive Mr. Black. But nevermind, he’s got a business to run. William becomes the apple of his uncle’s eye, so passionate about the family business, unlike his cousin Charles who escapes abroad to paint and love out from under the disapproving eye of their grandfather.

William has four children and a wife he loves, but he loves working even more. Work work work. He just loves to work, and he’s good at it. Setterfield seems to relish this subject, and her passion made me relish it as well. I never thought I’d be so fascinated by a textile mill. Then tragedy strikes and William loses people he cares about. He’s just about to lose everything and he goes to a bar and drinks himself silly. On the way home, crossing a graveyard, he sees Mr. Black, who this time sticks around long enough to talk to him. This is the point at which the book should have ended. This is the point at which the rook revealed himself and said “I’m avenging my fallen cousin, whom I loved as much as you loved the people you just buried, by bringing a plague on your house.” That should have been it. Shave and a haircut, end of story. Ghoulish, creepy, done. But instead, Black says something elusive about an opportunity, and William decides that means they’re going to open a funerary emporium.

The next part of the book was about opening the business of the funerary emporium. We got a lot of detail about this business, how amazing their goods were, how exquisitely tasteful, how grand the building. And then there’s more of William working, ignoring the few friends and family he has left. The last half of the book lost all the well-done characterization that I’d so enjoyed at the beginning. The person who had a personality (William) kind of lost it and became one-note (William=works). Setterfield devotes page after loving page describing Bellman & Black, but I didn’t care about the business. I’d already read half a book about a textile mill, and that was fine, but businesses aren’t as interesting as people, especially if half the people in them are faceless, nameless, or even if they do have names (Girl No. 9) they don’t really have personalities to go along with them.

William works and works, hoping to balance out his agreement with Mr. Black. He’s terrified of Mr. Black, thinks that if he doesn’t offer Mr. Black enough money, Mr. Black will … what? It’s never said, and it was hard to imagine anything William was afraid of losing. He doesn’t really care for anyone or anything at that point, except his business. He doesn’t even bother to visit the person he ostensibly went into agreement for. So there’s no characterization, and the only plot is “will the business continue to do well” and “when will Mr. Black show up?” But I wasn’t invested in the former (there were hints that it might fail soon, but it didn’t do so, and a major opportunity for character emotion and action was lost) and the latter, when it finally happened, was a huge let down.

I’ll just admit that I didn’t get it. Or I got it, but didn’t think I got it because it didn’t feel like a satisfactory ending. I wanted more. I wanted an epiphany. I wanted a resolution. I wanted some plot point to justify wading through the plotless and characterless Part 2 of the book. What I got was some maybe-sorta-magic from the never-explained Mr. Black (who, near as I can tell, had zero correlation or connection with the dead rook, except in color). The huge finale: Mr. Black shows us that instead of grieving by remembering the dead and thinking about his own mortality, William lost himself in work. I was so disappointed. I was like, seriously? I figured that out 150 pages ago! Why did you make me wade through an Ayn Rand novel for 150 pages! If the moral is just “a man can be smart at business and dumb at what’s really important” you didn’t need Mr. Black to tell that story. You didn’t need the rooks. I felt like I was promised a gothic urban fantasy and what I got was a Victorian morality play with some black bird stickers pasted on. I was told by the cover that the rook was absolutely central to the story, that Bellman and Black formed a partnership to create a macabre business, and that was not true. They didn’t make some Faustian bargain. Black just sort of showed up, and then they threw in some haphazard Norse mythology and called it a day. The pieces didn’t connect, and part 2 just kind of meandered looking for an ending.

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