Friday, April 7, 2023

Bellman & Black

 Bellman & Black (2013) by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis [from the book flap]: One moment in time can haunt you forever. 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 had 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.

My take: So, this synopsis and that on Goodreads which ends with "The stranger has a proposition for William..." are both misleading. The stranger in black keeps appearing whenever anyone in William's life dies. He's always the background, silent, never approaching William. Until a fever nearly wipes out William's whole family and then "Black" (as William names him) says that here is an opportunity. That's it--those words. Everything about the partnership is made up by William. He comes up with Bellman & Black. He puts away a share of the profits in Black's name. But there is no deal--there is no stated proposition. It only William's idea of what this strange presence must have meant.

I went into this book thinking that the man in black was the rook come back to haunt William in a substantial way and that there was something substantive in this "proposition." William thinks he's made this deal with Black (the rook? the devil?--who knows) to save his beloved daughter Dora. But there's no real evidence of that. What happens is William works himself to death (quite literally) for a mistaken idea that he's got some sort of partnership going on. And for what? He apparently loved Dora enough to make this deal (whether that's what saved her from the fever or not)--but then spends the rest of his life pretty much ignoring her. He sets up Bellman & Black in London and leaves her back home in the country with women to watch over her. He visits her like twice in the whole rest of the book. So much for the love that drove him to the bargain in the first place.

I didn't get what I expected from this book. I expected a gothic-style haunting. The rook out for revenge and sense of menace from this deal with devil. There was none of that. What I did get out of the book was a sense of a life wasted. When he was young, William had a terrific singing voice and loved to sing. Everything changed once he took over the mill. With Dora's mother, he had love--but even then he didn't enjoy life because he spent so much of it at work. Because he was so absorbed by work--first at the mill and then even more so at Bellman & Black, he missed the essence of life--friends, companionship, the love of family, watching his girl grow up, the possibility of new love and life right under his nose in London. All that. At the end of his life, he remembers everything that happened to him and it's all over in a paragraph. His life could have been so much fuller. 

That's certainly a sobering message and even a good message, but that isn't quite what was advertised. There are constant breaks where we get little tidbits about rooks/ravens/etc. (like all the different collective nouns for a group of them, from a parish of rooks to a clamor of rooks to a building of rooks, etc.). You think there's going to be a big deal about the rook killed and some real connection made between Black and the rook. There isn't. It just feels like a plot line that was never fully developed. I wanted to like this more than I did, but in the end I just felt the whole thing was anticlimactic. There were mysteries--and they were largely left unsolved. ★★  and 1/2

First line: I have heard it said, by those that cannot possibly know, that in the final moments of a man's existence he sees his whole life pass before his. eyes.

Last lines: Incidentally, we have a collective noun for you too. You are, to us, an entertainment of humans.


Deaths = 14 (twelve natural; one drowned; one kicked by a horse)

1 comment:

Marg said...

I loved Setterfield's first book but I am pretty sure I never quite got around to reading anything else from her

Thank you for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge