Saturday, January 04, 2014

Book 2: Bellman and Black

I'm pretty sure that my reaction upon completing a book isn't supposed to be "so what was the point/ what the fuck did I just read?"  I don't think every book needs to have a deeper message (which this one kind of did, but it was a bit cliche, hence the "what's the point") or even a super exciting plot as long as I feel entertained.  Unfortunately, the novel ran out of steam for me about halfway through, which is really unfortunate because I loved The Thirteenth Tale by the same author.

Even this novel had several things going for it but in the end they didn't come together for me.  Though it was set in the Victorian Age, it felt like a fairy tale, especially in the beginning, and I actually quite liked that.  I liked the hints at a larger picture, since it begins with tracing everything back to the time William killed a rook.  When later in life his friends and family start to die, it is hard not to ask if there is something more behind it all, some meaning.  The writing is beautiful, and the story develops a great atmosphere but halfway through I began to think that the atmosphere was in and of itself the point, and wasn't actually building towards anything.

Goodreads has the title listed as Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, and while one could argue that the main character is haunted, especially towards the last half of the novel as he occasionally will think he is forgetting something vital and finds his sleep disturbed by vague remembrances, it is not at all a traditional ghost story or anything like that - basically it's misleading to think of it that way.

After the novel introduces William Bellman, the ten year old who kills the rook, it flashes forward to him as a restless and charming seventeen year old.  Though he is the grandson of the mill owner, his father angered his family, and William has certainly not been accepted into it.  However, his uncle Paul has an interest in the boy, and gives him a job at the mill.  From here, the novel chronicles William's hard work and success at the mill as he comes up with innovations, and earns his uncle's respect.  At first the novel gives one the idea that William could easily have been a drifter but with this one opportunity, he becomes a steadfast and stable businessman whom fortune favors.  As time passes, friends and family die, but it is only when the flu sweeps through the village and threatens his family that William questions whether he has earned his good luck.

This is the turning point of the novel as William believes he made a deal, and from here on he tries to remember the terms of that deal as he develops a whole new empire, the store Bellman and Black, named after a man he has seen at all the funerals he has attended, and the man he may have made a deal with.  It is this part of the novel that sets it firmly in the Victorian Era as Setterfield explores the the funeral and mourning traditions of that time period.  Mourning was huge in the Victorian Age, and Queen Victoria herself certainly took part in the extensive (and excessive) rituals developed at that time.  Unfortunately as interesting as the details of the novel were - and I loved the descriptions and all the minor details about the store -, it is at this point that the book lost its footing.  While I was curious if there was something more to Black when he was a funeral guest in Bellman's life, after their interaction in the cemetery, the novel seems to stumble along without its plot.  I stopped caring about William because he stopped caring, becoming so lost in his work that he no longer had the charming personality of the previous parts of the novel.  I know this is part of the message of the novel but I can't say I really cared much more for any of the other characters at this point.

The novel has the occasional few pages between chapters about rooks, and those were poetically written, adding to the potential of the novel and the possible mystery that ended up getting lost.  In fact, those passages and the writing in general were one of the main reasons I debated between whether or not this would rate a 3 or a 2 on Goodreads, but I ended up going towards the 2 because despite the fact that I really liked the last page and other parts of the novel, it didn't work for me as a whole.  Given my love of The Thirteenth Tale, that was very disappointing.

1 comment:

Carrie K. said...

We had very similar reactions to this one.