Diane Setterfield set the bar pretty high for herself with her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, which is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Now she’s back with Bellman & Black, a ghost story of sorts that isn’t as haunting to the reader as it is to the protagonist.
The writing of this follow up novel still holds the high quality of Setterfield’s first novel; the problem is the story just isn’t as gripping. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find myself being drawn back to the story, but I have no idea why when trying to summarize the story right now. Let me know how this hits you: the main body of Bellman & Black follows one of these title characters as he does his best to avoid being “haunted” by the other. How does he do this? By working in a textile mill.
Bellman didn’t start out this single minded, but after going through a heck of a lot of trauma involving the deaths of seemingly anyone and everyone he knows, Bellman loses himself in his work instead of truly being affected as most would by what he experiences. Which is where the theme of the book comes in. Long story short: One cannot be haunted by the past if time is not allowed to acknowledge its existence.
I would say that the formation of this theme starts with the death of his mother early on because this is where he feels a loss so profoundly that he loses his zest for life until eventually meeting his wife, but we are supposed to believe that the moment that truly shaped the rest of his life comes during his childhood when he somehow manages to kill a rook with his slingshot as it sits peacefully on a branch across a meadow. Rooks continue to be an image for the remainder of the novel, and they even get a handful of chapters dedicated to them, but their inclusion in the story, as well as Black’s, and how they connect to the theme just never seems fully realized to me.
I can appreciate the idea behind this story, but it just makes such a boring novel when you get down to it because Bellman doesn’t deal with anything other than his work, and all of his human characteristics and emotions are abandoned to become a highly motivated catalyst of industry. So all we read about is his day to day business, down to every uninteresting detail as all of the intriguing aspects that I would love to spend more time with, such as his family and love interests, fade away. Eventually there is what I assume is supposed to be this profound moment in Bellman’s life to end the story, but it’s just such an abrupt bookend that after everything the catharsis is not shared with the reader.
Though I cannot say that I truly didn’t like Bellman & Black because it wasn’t a challenge to motivate myself to keep reading as I hoped for something more substantial to happen, I find myself being mostly indifferent to it, which is a worse place to be because it won’t take long too forget it.
Final Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Follow @BewareOfTrees