Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review - Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Published by: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publication Date: November 5th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

William Bellman's life was perfect for a time. He excelled at the family business, a thriving mill which he helped make more prosperous. When his uncle died suddenly his cousin decided that William should take over and he pushed the mill's productivity even further. This allowed him to marry for love and have as many children as they could. His life was at it's apex. Things started to go wrong. Those he loved started to die. At each and every funeral he sees a man who knowingly looks at him and yet William can not for the life of him place this familiar face. After his wife and all his children but one die he meets the man, a Mr. Black, in the cemetery standing over his family's freshly dug graves. William is pleading for the life of his poor daughter, dear Dora, and though he can't remember what happened that feverish night, he knows that he and Mr. Black struck some sort of deal. That deal, however nebulous, starts William Bellman on a new business venture. He is to create an emporium in London catering to the bereaved. Bellman and Black will have the finest in all funerary needs. William doesn't sleep, he doesn't eat, he lives and breathes this new company. He finds the backers, he finds the location, he finds the architect, he finds the blackest of black fabrics, the subtlest of stationary, the discreetest of employees, he finds everything but his associate Mr. Black. Mr. Black is nowhere to be found. This starts to gnaw on William. Is their bargain complete? Will his partner ever come for the funds he is so diligently putting aside? As William lay dying he looks on the face of Mr. Black and a memory comes back to him. William is ten and out with three of his friends. He boasts he can kill a rook with his slingshot. No one there thought he could do it, and yet the dead rook spoke to his success. A success that he forgot but the rooks remembered.

I don't know why I gave Diane Setterfield a second chance. The Thirteenth Tale was predictable and what plot it had was simplistic. The reveal was so laughably telegraphed that I can't believe that anyone fell for it. And then I read the cunningly calibrated wording to promote her second novel "a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line" and I was sold. I have to remind myself that the marketing department is not the author and also, where was the ghost!?! There was no ghost! Wait, was it the ghost of a plot? No, it couldn't be that because instead of going from a simplistic plot with her first book to a more complex one with her second she went in the exact opposite direction and wrote a book with no plot. No ghost of a plot, simply NO PLOT. Also where was that ratcheting tension? Was it hidden in the hundred pages about how a mill works? Or was it happening offstage in the next hundred pages when Bellman was building his Selfridges of death? Somewhere amongst the building plans and finding the blackest black? And another thing, this book does a disservice to stories about department stores! The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge, even Are You Being Served? have proven again and again that department stores are rife for storytellers. But I don't think Diane Setterfield is a storyteller, I think she has to admit at this point that her writing just puts people to sleep and should therefore start a practice helping insomniacs and leave us poor unwitting readers who jump at the Gothic alone. This book literally took me two weeks to read because every night it would lull me to sleep with it's lack of plot and too much time on wool!

You would think with all these hundreds of pages devoid of plot that she could really nail down her details, and to an untrained eye she might... but I have a sneaking suspicion that she is writing out of her ass. She writes in loving detail about warp and weft, how to get blacks the blackest they can be, and who am I to know if this is right? I'm not an expert on milling and dyeing in the 19th century but I do know to make black blacker you add blue not more black! What I am an expect on is anything to do with art, therefore I know my paper stocks. At one point Bellman is talking about some exquisite paper he is getting in that will be perfect for mourning stationary and it's 1/2" thick. Excuse me!?! Firstly paper is done in pounds and if you are taking a caliper to measure it, they are small increments indeed. And yes, I know paper is different stateside to the UK, but I learned both systems at school and I think the UK system is SO much more logical. Therefore I can definitively say that if Bellman stocked paper that was 1/2" think it wouldn't be paper it would be a block of wood. It would be freakin' 1/2" thick, a THIRD of the thickness of a 2x4. I feel especial pain that as this book was supposedly edited by someone in the book world, a world of paper for printing and publishing that no one scratched there head and went "hang on a minute something seems wrong here" but alas such is the case. Therefore the integrity of the author has been impinged. I know she got this 100% wrong, so how can I trust any of the details she gives? Nothing can be taken at face value and therefore she has completely devalued her own work with shitty research.

Though her shitty specificity doesn't carry throughout the book. It's very nebulous as to when the events take place. The section in the mill indicates that it's just at the cusp of the industrial revolution so the first half of the 19th century, but then the prevalence of Victorian funerary practices would mean that it would have to coincide with Prince Albert's death in 1861, and yet by the end of the book cremation is all the vogue which didn't happen until the turn of the 20th century, and as Bellman was in his fifties when he died how the fuck does time work in this book!?! Maybe if you say his mill was backwards, despite the author trying to show otherwise, we could say that Bellman was born around 1850 and everything can kind of fall into place, but just... Yet it drives me batty that she can spend hundreds of pages on fabric and I had to go online to see that the first cremation was in 1885 and in 1902 the cremation act was passed. Though I still can't be sure that this is what she was referring too as the inevitable downfall of the Selfridges of death! What could have been interesting to explore in a book was the radically changing funerary practices over the course of this one century, with cremation taking the place of grand pomp and circumstance due not only to cost but to consideration as the cities for the dead impinged on the cities of the living. If the history aspect had been explored, going into Queen Victoria and her staying in mourning until her death, interestingly enough until the year before the cremation act, I could have so read the heck out of those details! Instead we are left with imbalance. A book with no plot going into excruciating and erroneous details about non-essentials and vaguebooking anything of historical significance that could have given the book depth.

But then in the end Setterfield decides to revel in the vague. A draw your own conclusions approach that made me draw the conclusion that she can't write. Here's the thing, putting an ampersand between two things DOESN'T link them. You actually have to establish a connection, you need to set this up, you need to link the very human world of Bellman with the probably avian world of Black. You can't have a connection so tenuous that at times the protagonist actually wonders if there was ever an agreement between them. And just randomly having short sections about corvids with pointless facts isn't integrating them into the story, it's breaking up the monotony with information that has no bearing on the rest of the book. And here is the crux of this problem, without a definitive link between Bellman and Black, without some explanation as to who Black is there is no "other" element to this book. The Gothic goes out the window and the supernatural has sped away. When your hints are so vague you can't draw ANY conclusions perhaps it's time to realize you have failed at whatever it was you were trying to do. Because the truth is I have NO idea what Setterfield was trying to do here. Is Black death in a Meet Joe Black kind of way? Is Black the human form of a rook? Is Black both? Gaw! So annoying! I mean, is he even there at all or just a hallucination that Bellman has, a kind of Grim that haunts Bellman? Because if it is just a presentiment of death that's been stalking Bellman since he was a child, well, that's just lame, because if you think about it death stalks us all. So that's the point of the book is it? You live a life and then you die? Wow, that's some original thinking there...


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