Monday, December 23, 2013

BELLMAN & BLACK: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield

A Ghost Story
Diane Setterfield
Atria Books, November 2013
Historical Fiction, Mystery, Paranormal, Gothic, Horror
3.5 stars out of 5
Buy it on Amazon


As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that has unforeseen and terrible consequences. By the time he is grown, with a family of his own, he seems to be a man blessed by fortune - until tragedy strikes. 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 thus, Bellman & Black is born.

My review

"Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they don't forget."

On a bright summer day, William Bellman's perfectly engineered slingshot launched a stone on a perfectly curved trajectory, bringing down a perfectly black rook.  He was only ten at the time, so the  memory of that cruelty was easily removed, and the regret swept under the rug of his conscience.  As a young man, William's enthusiasm and vision earned him the liking and respect of his fellow men: with a steady job at his uncle's mill, a regular income, a beautiful wife and four wonderful kids, William is a prodigy of business acumen and amiable personality. Happiness comes at a price, though, and when one by one he loses his wife and three of his  children to a pandemic flu, he will strike a macabre deal with a mysterious man in order to save what is left of his family.

The fact that the book was penned by the author of critically acclaimed novel The Thirteenth Tale may have raised my bar of expectations, I am afraid. So, here I am, trying to transfix in words my reaction to the book, but having a hard time pinning down my feelings between swinging moods of curiosity for the haunting quality of its central theme, peaks of interest for the peculiarity of the main character, and valleys of boredom at the detailed descriptions of the textile business. Narratives that unfold at a comfortable pace are quite agreeable to my taste, but in this case I lament an overall tediousness and an uneven development of characters and plot. 

Reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's novelette, The Birds, and frequently compared to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Diane Setterfield's novel evokes the Gothic eeriness and macabre atmosphere of Poe's The Raven, but it ultimately lacks the depth of each of those masterpieces. I see how William Bellman's exceptional hard-working and over-achieving personality may bring to mind the materialistic obsession of an Ebenezer Scrooge, but the similarities end there: Bellman & Black doesn't achieve the heartwarming meaningfulness and structural wholeness of the Christmas tale. 

Set in an unspecified era that we can easily identify as a late Victorian, turn of the century, rural England, the book has in death and grief its tie-in and consistent theme: death as the accidental consequence of a reckless act, death as natural order of the universe, death as a business. A sense of pending doom builds up between languid intervals and suspenseful passages, but it deflates intermittently and leads to an unsatisfactory resolution. Not compelling enough for me.

***Review copy graciously offered by the publisher via NetGalley in return for an unbiased and honest opinion.


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