Title: Bellman & Black
Writer: Diane Setterfield
Publishing House: Atria
Date of Publication: November 5th 2013
Rating: 5 stars
‘’In the few minutes since the boys had left the place, rooks had come. They circled above the oak, fifteen or twenty of them. More were arriving from all directions. They stretched across the sky, loose skeins of dark marks, converging on this place. One by one they descended to alight in the branches of the tree. Ordinarily such a congregation would be accompanied by the noise of strong chatter as the birds flung sound at each other like gravel. This gathering was different: it took place in intent and purposeful silence.
Every bird on every branch was looking at his direction.’’
First things first. This novel is the very definition, the epitome of the Victorian Gothic story. It is the child of a contemporary Dickens, a dark masterpiece by one of the finest writers of our times. Diane Setterfield has a knack for the haunting, the mysterious. Bellman & Black is a book that requires you to think and try to explain. It doesn’t give you tailor-made answers. It demands to be read with an open mind, to accept the impossible and investigate. That’s what brains are for, anyway…
William Bellman is an intelligent, hard-working young man with a bright future ahead of him. He has been blessed with perception and immense organizing skills and with a beautiful family. But soon, Fate strikes and strikes again. A black-clad man seems to follow him in the darkest moments and William becomes convinced that a bargain should be made. This is how Bellman & Black, a truly macabre and fascinating endeavor, is created. But William cannot understand that the past is a prison no one can escape.
‘’They used to put the dead out on stone platforms for their bones to be picked clean by the rooks. Did you know that? Long time ago. Before our crosses and spires and prayer books.’’
In my opinion, this is the darkest book by Diane Setterfield. I’ve read and adored all three, each one so different and so complex but they all have one thing in common: a sharply accurate perception of the human soul and the external forces that shape and define a great number of the choices we make. In Bellman & Black, the themes are many, all profound and relevant.
Death is our greatest fear, whoever states the opposite is a lying fool who thinks we’re idiots. William starts seeing and breathing Death and decides to exorcise it by setting up an enterprise of mourning and ceremonies. He wants to honour it by providing the very best of services in an attempt to rescue the only treasure that matters. His child. And then, his aim becomes an obsession. Where are the boundaries – if there are any, that is. Where does one begin to understand that he is actually a victim of a strange desire? On the other hand, how can a human being, even one as gifted as William, battle against forces that are so much stronger than us?
What about the past? How can a good life that aims in helping others atone for an act of violence? How can we escape the whims of Fate that haunts our steps? Can there be a second chance to make up for the horrible fault of a child? We often talk about revenge against each other. What can we do when Nature is set on taking revenge against us? These are only a few of the questions that this book poses on the reader. And if we read books, we do so because we want to think and question. If we approach books as we approach the items in a supermarket, then novels like this one are not for us.
‘’The tree still stands. Even now you can go and see it – yes, right now, in your time – but you will not see a single rook alight in its branches. They still know what happened. Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget.’’
Setterfield creates a foreboding atmosphere, honouring the vast British tradition of Gothic Literature and elevating it to new standards. Visions, nightmares. Churches and graveyards. And the crows, the rooks, the ravens are always at the heart of the action. They define the course of the characters. They observe. And they punish. There are chapters with outstanding trivia on crows, with Huginn and Munnin, Odin’s spies, as the sovereigns of the species that is greatly loved and feared in British culture. Apart from the natural (or supernatural) world, the writer takes us into the secrets of the textile industry with brilliant information on the craft of the colours and the life inside the workshops of the Victorian era. And, obviously, our next stop is the industry of Death, the business of mourning, from the organizing of a burial to the fashion and the window display reserved for those who stay behind. Waiting for their turn…
In outstanding prose, beautiful dialogue, shuttering imagery and in the company of a very memorable main character, Setterfield creates a dark tale, a Death fairy tale of the fears, misfortunes, and choices that set our course in life. How much of it is our own doing? How many of our ‘’choices’’ are actually dictated by a severe hand of a power we cannot defeat? Read this Gothic work of Art and draw your own conclusions.
‘’All stories must come to an end. This one. Everyone’s. Your own.
The rook is a great lover of stories. He has been harvesting them for as long as there have been stories to harvest, which means for as long as there have been gods and men and rooks. And he has a good long memory for them.’’