Monday, November 09, 2015

Book Review: BELLMAN & BLACK

Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Pages: 337

There is an air of foreboding all around Bellman and Black, but it is not enough to justify calling it a ghost story.
There is far too much of the menace that is sought to be attached to the rooks.

The omniscient first person narrator pulls us into the story from the very first line. He/she offers us bite-sized pieces of philosophy in the manner of the writers of old. It is a technique which serves to establish the period which is somewhere in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. 

It was a time when professions long forgotten in time, such as the corderwainers were important, and a spinster did not have the pejorative connotation it suffers today.

As a 10-year-old boy, William Bellman aims his catapult at a rook and, in an act of childish cruelty, kills it. With the killing of the rook, we get a sense of something having altered irrevocably for him, thought its impact does not show itself, until much later.

William’s uncle, Paul, offers him the opportunity to work at the family Bellman cloth spinning mill, and William joins him with gusto, discovering within himself a talent for doing business and managing people. He grows in stature at the mill; later, he marries and has children and his life is full of joy.

When his mother dies, and then his uncle too, he plods on, enabling the mill to grow and make greater profits. Years later, an epidemic claims the lives of his wife and three children. Dora, his firstborn child, too falls prey to the epidemic.

At each of these funerals, William sees an unfamiliar man, dressed in black. This man makes William a very strange offer, which William accepts and Bellman and Black, a mourning emporium, comes into being.

William puts into Bellman and Black the same energy that he had once put into the running of the mill. The opening of the store galvanises many aspects of the local industry.

I found the chapter in which William is introduced to the workings of the mill particularly interesting. Bear in mind that this is a time when the spinning jenny has transformed industry.

The writing is compelling and forceful and I enjoyed it. Particularly, when the subject was the rooks, the writing took on a deeper, more poetic hue. These sections started off with an ampersand at the top. While they offered a beautiful and eloquent insight into the habits of the rooks, culminating in a grammar lesson on the collective nouns for them, there didn’t seem to be much point to this section of the story.

You can’t help but be impressed by the quantum of detail that Diane has put into the telling of her story. As also by the words she has used to depict every mood, experience and situation. Always the right word. 

You get the feeling that this author has made the language her own, and searched always for the right word, and not rested until it is found, never settling for second-best to express anything.

This detail is seen in the description of the mill, and of the construction of the mourning emporium, which is done with respect to the period.

The characterization and the plot show the change in William from the 10-year-old boy who killed a rook to the 50-year-old man of business who lets his obsessions get the better of him. Gradually, he becomes a hardened man, looking to business to satisfy all his emotional needs.

It is at this point that the novel suddenly gets a little darker and more than a little worrisome, but not enough to be called a ghost story. In fact, for the greater part of the novel, we don’t even see the supposed spectre, Mr Black, and when we do, it is always through William’s impressions, and we’re never sure if Mr Black is real.

Left to itself, I liked the book, but the weight of expectations raised by the publishers, the weight of being called A Ghost Story, that’s something that this book doesn’t quite recover from. And just for that reason, all the effort is undone. And the end comes across as a huge disappointment.

Not that I regret reading it. The writing was worth it.

 (I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)

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