Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books - Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

So I may have slightly lied. 

I did say I’d be reviewing Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared this week, but as I’ve been slightly busier than I predicted and the novel is taking me longer to get through that I thought it might, I’ve decided to go for a book I read a few months back: Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black.

Bellman & Black, Setterfield’s second novel, was published last year. It follows the life and death of William Bellman, a work-obsessed man haunted by death and time – and the occasional rook. It is a ghost story, and a whole lot more.

First off I should say that I love Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Words cannot describe my adoration of this book. You may have noticed that I quoted from it in my blog introduction. It is my favourite non-Victorian novel, and makes it into my top ten favourite books alongside a wealth of nineteenth century literary greats. It is the only book I’ve read more than twice that’s neither by Dickens nor on my GCSE/A-level/university courses. It contains all the elements I best like to find in novels: unreliable narrators, stories within stories, fantastic and enigmatic characters, mysteries that are resolved unpredictably but not ridiculously – plus a healthy amount of references to Dickens and the Brontës. If I ever forget why I want to be a writer I only need to read The Thirteenth Tale to remember. It’s a thoroughly perfect novel. If you haven’t read it, do. At once.

Much as William Bellman lives in the shadow of a childhood act of cruelty, Bellman & Black has no choice but to live in the shadow of Setterfield’s first wondrous novel. I often feel slightly bad for authors stuck in this situation, having to follow a brilliant and successful work with something they know fans will never think is as good (for a more high-profile example you only need to think of the reception of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy – another brilliant book that I may try and review one of these days). Everyone who read and enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale has no doubt been waiting as eagerly as me for the last seven years for Setterfield’s second novel, and everyone who read and enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale undoubtedly sat there reading Bellman & Black and, like me, couldn’t quite resist making a string of comparisons between the two.

Bellman & Black is a very good book. Setterfield is, as always, a master of atmosphere. Death hangs over the novel in an eerie yet enthralling way. The suspense is astounding. I especially love that Setterfield manages to place the novel historically without needing a date. She does the same in her first novel, and here it is perhaps even more effective. It would be all too easy for Setterfield to once or twice mention, say, 1850, and our minds would at once be filled with vague images of a smoky industrial Dickensian Britain, urbanisation, illness, mills, top hats and pocket watches. But Setterfield works far harder. The novel is thoroughly Victorian, without be explicitly Victorian in any way. It is Victorian in atmosphere, though never stated in fact. This gives it a fantastic sense of the apolitical, and the ahistorical. The fact that the novel is never dated also enforces the relevance of its themes today. After all, as Bellman points out, ‘death doesn’t go out of fashion’.

Thematically, the novel is fascinating. The central themes are death, work and time – and all those other, more important, things that might get pushed to the side by the weight of those three. The novel explores and sustains these themes brilliantly. Bellman & Black could easily be studied, and I’ve no doubt that book clubs will have a field day with it.

The ending is effective, dramatic and purposeful, if not quite as jaw-dropping as the closing of The Thirteenth Tale. Likewise, the characterisation of William Bellman – his intelligence and occasional carelessness, his endeavours to escape the past by burying himself in work – all of these are well drawn and explored. There are some especially poignant moments, including the deaths of various members of William’s family and, later in the novel, his not-quite-relationship with needleworker Lizzie.

I also like the occasional passages from books on birds, especially the references to all the bizarre and somewhat creepy collective nouns for rooks, including not only ‘parish’ and a ‘parliament’ but, my personal favourite, a ‘storytelling of rooks’. These brief passages set up the tone for the rest of the novel, because we are left in no doubt that the rooks are always watching.

So, overall, Bellman &Black is a very good, very readable, very gripping novel.

But it is not The Thirteenth Tale.

I think part of the problem of my reaction to this novel is that, to me, few novels can beat the sheer brilliance of Setterfield’s first.

Both novels are ghost stories, but both novels are also much more than ghost stories. I think one of the reasons why I prefer The Thirteenth Tale is connected to this. Where it goes beyond a ghost story it becomes a story of family, mystery, and of human people. Where Bellman & Black goes beyond a ghost story it becomes an allegory, a moral tale. If the novel’s moral is not to drown reality in work, not to forget the past, not to forget people or forget to think, then it almost paradoxically drowns out its own message by being, ultimately, not about people so much as about ideas. William Bellman is a great character, but he is no Margaret Lee, and he is certainly no Vida Winter. The novel’s strength is its themes, not its characterisation,

Then there’s also the ending. Bellman & Black’s ending, as I have said, was effective. But the concluding chapters of The Thirteenth Tale are far beyond effective. There is a moment of understanding in that novel when you suddenly think, Oh wait, hang on a minute... oh! and the whole novel suddenly makes sense. Everyone who has read The Thirteenth Tale will know the sentence I mean, that astounding moment of revelation. There is no such moment in Bellman & Black. The novel does have a climax, but you don’t end up thinking well now everything makes sense so much as I pretty much already knew that, and there’s still lots I don’t know. Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, the novel’s ghostliness isn’t exactly given a satisfactory explanation. It’s more ambiguous. But perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps I like that. I haven’t completely decided. But after all, Bellman & Black is not The Thirteenth Tale and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be. It’s a different novel with different aims, themes and outcomes. Once I accepted that I was able to enjoy Bellman & Black for what it is: a really good novel, which deserves to be considered in its own right, not just compared to Setterfield’s first book.

And I’ve got no doubt I’ll be waiting very eagerly for the next seven-odd years until her third novel comes out.

Greatest strength: either the complexity of its themes, or its eerie atmosphere, which was brilliantly developed.

Greatest weakness: I did find the ending slightly anticlimactic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s more to do with my opinion of The Thirteenth Tale than actually to do with Bellman & Black.

Let’s finish on a quote: Bellman & Black was teeming with life and money and death.

It was a success.

Next week: Let’s be hopeful and say by then I’ll have finished Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by then.

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