I finished Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story today, the second novel by Diane Setterfield, whose first book, The Thirteenth Tale, was a phenomenal bestseller, debuting on the NY Times Bestseller List at number one. Bellman has received mixed reviews on Goodreads and Amazon but I was hooked by the cover blurb:
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 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.
This novel is about death and madness. Death seems to follow William as in business he moves from success to success but neglects his family life, or what remains of his family after it is decimated by a mysterious illness. Around every corner and in every dream the rooks are waiting. After his meeting with the elusive stranger whom we come to know as Mr. Black William sets out to establish London’t first funeral store, a one-stop-shop for Victorians celebrating mourning. Little does he know his obsession with creating the perfect retail environment for death will ultimately result in his own.
There were such elaborate rituals associated with death in the Victorian age; wearing black for two years and then slowly moving into lighter shades of grey, outfitting even the lowliest servant in mourning clothes. There is a list of reference books on the last page that Setterfield used in her research and one in particular sounds worthy of further study: James Stevens Curl’s The Victorian Celebration of Death. Indeed.
For me the book was engaging and well written. It is a very different style from The Thirteenth Tale, which I loved. I had no difficulty seeing it through to the end. One of the elements that stayed with the main character throughout the story is his calfskin notebook. He carries it with him everywhere and writes list after list of everything he needs to do. Sound familiar?
[William] filled every minute of the day with activity. He lived in fear of idleness, sought out tasks to fill every chink and every nook of his waking day, and if something was finished five minutes earlier than he’d allowed, he grew fretful. He learned to keep a list of small jobs to fill those dangerous spaces in his day. Accompanying Paul to a meeting with a haberdasher in Oxford, he stopped off in Turl Street to purchase a calfskin notebook for the express purpose of writing these lists. He kept it close by him: in the office it was always on his desk; on site at the mill or travelling it was to hand in his pocket. He slept with it by his bed, reached for it the moment he awoke. When the monster reached his claw for him, sometimes just the touch of the calfskin cover was enough to hold it at bay while he armoured himself with work.
I identified with this image so much; I carry my notebook around with me everywhere, even to bed. It is a magical talisman that calms and protects me.
I pictured something like this when I read the description of his notebook:
Along with the recurring element of the notebook, one cannot escape the rooks, just like William. Interspersed in the text are interludes of rook history and behavior, told from the rook’s point of view, in a different font which is as effective as it is creepy. The rooks’ cries and wing flutters are just out of reach for William, but ever present. He is truly haunted by a thoughtless act of killing committed as a child, and the image never quite leaves his consciousness. Here is an excerpt from the last, and best, missive from the rook:
All stories must come to an end. This one. Everyone’s. Your own.
When your story comes to an end, a rook will harvest it, as I harvested William Bellman’s story. So when you arrive at the last line of the last page, it is Thought or Memory or one of their many descendants who will be waiting to accompany you as the book closes on your story. En route, over the last blank page and beyond the covers to that unknown place, your rook will harvest your story. Later, he will make his way back without you. And then, when the time is right, he will make his way to the white page of sky where he will partake in the most important rook ritual of all.
All will be gathered together in an inkpool of black. First one will rise, then others, then hundreds, then thousands until, ink-black marks on a paper-white blank, the descendants of Thought and Memory will dance together in a passionate and spectacular act of collectiveness: a storytelling, of gods, of men, of rooks.
I hope in my eagerness to convey the atmosphere of the book I have not given too much away. Ultimately I would recommend this book. Not a match to her first wildly successful effort but a worthy follow up, in my opinion.