Bellman & Black
I won an autographed copy of Diane Setterfield’s novel Bellman & Black from Cathy at Kittling Books, whose review got me interested in it. Luckily, I waited until June to read it, because the first half gets bleak, before the significance of the supernatural elements becomes clear. In the first half, I wondered if the man the main character, William Bellman, sees at the grave of his various relatives would turn out to be his father, missing since a few days after his birth. I thought that perhaps the sections on rooks would turn out to be tied to the plot. In the second half, however, it becomes clear that these elements are about more than the story of a single man, no matter how extraordinary.
William Bellman is extraordinary. From the age of ten, he’s the cleverest, the strongest, the most intelligent, the friendliest, and the most industrious person anyone around him has ever met. He can hit a bird from far away with a slingshot. He can figure out the close-kept secrets of a dyer in the textile mill he is learning to manage. He is good to people, partly because he likes them, and partly because it’s his nature to be able to coax the best work out of everyone. We get lots of detail about how perceptive and hard-working Will is, and so we grow to love him and wish him well.
Despite his virtues, though, Will does not get the kinds of rewards readers want for him. When his mother dies, and a childhood friend, and the uncle who has acted as a father to him, Will’s response is the same: to bury himself in work and try to forget. When his wife and three of his four children die, however, Will reaches a breaking point. He tries bargaining, and being a man of business, he means that literally.
When the second half of the novel began, I thought William had made a deal with Death. He thought so too. The Victorian flavor of the writing adds to this impression, as it has all along, until a sentence in this section almost—but not quite—slipped by me without sounding all that remarkable: “after lunch they spent half an hour in a brougham before arriving at a courtyard, then a room fragrant with cedar and pine, and carpeted with curls cut from the heads of babies, that were crisp underfoot.” There’s a Victorian version of the song Cats in the Cradle with William Bellman and his surviving daughter—the daughter that, at this point, I thought he had made a deal for with Death himself. Using work as an excuse, as he always does, William makes a cursory apology for being busy and his daughter, Dora, replies “you have been busy ever since I was born, Father. I am perfectly used to it.” William, now the owner of a mill and a successful funeral business, thinks that “the comfort of grief was out of bounds, and it was too late for sorrow.”
William does meet Death, and there’s an interesting twist on how his life flashes before his eyes in that moment. The sections about rooks, having been gradually revealed as more about the narrative than the plot, comment on the way William’s life flashes before his eyes. For them, as for us, it is entertainment–but entertainment of a very black sort–black being, as William himself would tell you, a complicated color to create.