As a boy, William Bellman commits one small, cruel act: killing a bird with his slingshot. Little does he know the unforeseen and terrible consequences of the deed, which is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to be a man blessed by fortune - until tragedy strikes and the stranger in black comes. Then he starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, William enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business. And Bellman & Black is born.
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I loved Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and I was eager to devoir her next work. What Setterfield has produced here is, in my opinion, a work less enjoyable to read and yet similarly well worth reading.
Let me explain.
This is not a mystery in any sense, but rather a classic Gothic novel, working out its dark message with all the unflinching inevitability of works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. From the moment 11-year-old William Bellman pointlessly kills a young rook with his slingshot, the reader knows things will go badly for him. As he labors to build his adult life -- with loving wife, healthy children, and thriving business -- the reader realizes he will rise to heights only to fall. Not once was I surprised at what befell Bellman. That is not necessarily a criticism. We don't watch the proverbial train wreck because we think the tracks will mysteriously reroute themselves at the last minute; we watch the proverbial train wreck for the edifying and horrifying majesty of the collision.
For that matter, there is something hauntingly reassuring in the idea -- even as it damns all of us -- that actions, however small and thoughtless, have consequences.
Just as, in the proverbial train wreck, watching the long lead-up to the tragedy has a certain oppressive inevitability that frustrates and wears at the nerves, so too does the bulk of Bellman and Black. This is why, despite Setterfield's gorgeous prose, it is not an enjoyable read. Once the reader completes the work and gains a bit of distance, though, it comes into full focus.
Drawing from folklore and legend about rooks, Setterfield stresses thought and memory as the two most terrible costs of Bellman's childhood act of murder: for the last long portion of his life, Bellman thinks only of death as he painstakingly builds Bellman & Black's to be London's premiere mourning emporium; he loses all memory of the happy home he knew with his family and the satisfying work he accomplished at the mill. His daughter, his sole remaining tie to humanity, grows to adulthood without his attention or awareness.
Setterfield expertly twines the narrative around different aspects of the mysterious, wise, and vengeful rook, using the various collective nouns for the birds -- a parish of rooks, a clamor of rooks, an unkindness of rooks, a parliament of rooks, and ultimately a storytelling of rooks -- as both an underlying theme of and a commentary on various sections of the story. The chilling final note of the book, that we short-lived and fallible humans are an entertainment, puts Bellman and his fall in proper context from a rook's perspective.
I appreciate Setterfield's artistry in the organization and symbolic depth of her tale, as well as her admirable restraint in the supernatural aspects of the story. If you're looking to fall in love with charming characters or be caught up breathlessly in an unfolding mystery, look elsewhere. But for a sobering, bleak, and carefully crafted tale about the human condition written in the great Gothic tradition, you need look no further.
Jack Davenport provided a solid narration for this novel.
Bellman and Black is a dark, brooding and brilliant study of a man whose life is at first smiled upon and then struck through with utter disaster. From the beginning, he was especially talented and diligent businessman whose whole life eventually revolved around work. A number of reviews have remarked that this book was a let down after her utterly brilliant debut in The Thirteenth Tale. Indeed, some have gone on to say that it seems to be written by a different author. That puzzles me in that this seems to be exactly the kind of book she would write; it is in keeping with her writing style, her focus on characters and dark events overshadowing lives. Admittedly, it doesn't have the narrative drive of The Thirteenth Tale, but it seems to match in almost every other way.
The protagonist, William Bellman, starts life a fairly normal lad with a bit of ambition and talent whose uncle runs the cloth mill, the villages main industry. Through his tutelage, William quickly becomes indispensable at the mill. He goes on to marry, Rose, the perfect girl, and have a grand family. Alas, he always worked a bit too much but not excessively so. That beings to change as he takes over the mill. Alas, tragedy strikes his life and his life is his work. He also now views his life through the lens of a mission; what he believes is a purpose to which he agreed. He made a kind of bargain with, what appears to be, a Grim Reaper with a nod to Norse mythology.
As I am wont to do, I went between the Kindle and Audible audiobook. Jack Davenport (of Pirates of the Caribbean and Coupling fame) is the perfect voice for this book. The tone of his voice, the pacing of the narration and phrasing and emphasize of the words are absolutely spot on. It's one of the best examples of straight narration I've heard. Whilst I recommend reading the book to linger on the language, I equally recommend this book based on the fantastic performance Mr. Davenport provides.