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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What I’m Reading: Bellman and Black

I still have one outstanding book that I read in 2013 to review and it is one that just missed out on being in my Top Ten Reads of the Year (I would say it was around 12 or 13), Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield.  This was Setterfield's long awaited follow up to the fantastically awesome The Thirteenth Tale.

I will start by saying that Bellman & Black was good, but it was not as enchanting as The Thirteenth Tale.  In some ways, however it was better.  B&B  is a more sophisticated story that leaves more open to the imagination; it is more atmospheric, and less about the twisting plot as it unfolds.

B&B is most simply described as the story of one man as he looks back at his life. William Bellman lives in rural England in the late 19th Century (disclaimer, Becky's favorite time setting). William begins his story back at what he can now see as the most important event of his life, the day he killed a rook with a slingshot.  The book then goes on to recount how William rises up the chain of command in his Uncle's cloth mill, how he makes great improvements in the processing and dyeing of cloth, and how he find happiness at home and work. He is on his way to a charmed life, so it seems.

But then things start going horribly wrong, and most of the people William cares for die horrible deaths. Each time he is at a funeral (and he goes to many), he sees a mysterious man in black.  William can't get this man out of his mind.

That is the first half of the book.  The second half follows what happens after he makes a deal with the man in black to stop the death and starts an upscale funeral business called Bellman & Black.  The story then follows the creation of this intricate and opulent business.  No detail about this amazing business is spared.

In fact, that brings up some of the important appeal factors here.  There is a lot of historical detail throughout this book.  I liked it, but overall it could slow the pacing of the book down to an unbearable point for plot driven readers.The novel is methodically paced with lots of detail about how cloth is made and how a business is built and expands. Fans of historical fiction from this era will enjoy this book because of the detail. But while the plot moved slowly at times, the book was compelling because of the frame, detail, and Gothic underpinnings which created suspense and dread. This entire package easily carried this reader through the novel.

The subtitle of this book is "a ghost story;" while it is an appropriate subtitle, it may throw some readers off. This is not a ghost story where an obvious haunting takes place, rather, there is a specter or dread, the unidentified "man in black," who is the force driving Bellman, propelling the story, and keeping us turning the pages.  He never shouts boo;  in fact, he never speaks. But his darkness is always floating just under the surface and neither Bellman nor the reader can shake him. And unlike a more traditional, horror based ghost story, there isn't that moment of reckoning where Bellman and Black battle it out.

The story just fizzles out, which is so awesomely creepy.  I have read some comments in which readers are upset by the lack of an ending, but I thought it was perfect.  Bellman cannot live forever, none of us can live forever, but the rooks, they will always be here. In fact, throughout the book there are quotes from the rooks.  They are taunting Bellman, and the reader.  It is creepy cool in a subtle way that sneaks up on you. I loved this inclusion.  The rooks are always there and present throughout the story, heck, through time they have always been there. They are not going away.

The entire book is subtle. The haunting is subtle, the story is subtle, the dread creeps up on you subtly.  That's why I said at the beginning that B&B is not as enchanting as The Thirteenth Tale. That novel takes the reader by the hand and obviously leads us.  The ride we go one is very satisfying, but we are passive.  The narrator is fairly passive as she records Vida's words.  We are all  being manipulated by Vida Winter as she tells us the story she wants to tell us in the order she wants to reveal it.

So, some readers may be disappointed in B&B because it is the exact opposite.  We are not as seduced by Bellman as we are by Winter.  Instead we are treated to an atmospheric, macabre tale that haunts us.  We observe William's life.  We see his early success and then all of his personal failures.  We see him become obsessed by the darkness of the stranger in black. We see what it does to him, how it slowly changes him.  The darkness and despair creep up on all of us.  It is subtle, but fantastic, which is why I also said in the opening of this post that in some ways, B&B is better. It is less enchanting, but overall it is a more accomplished and sophisticated method of storytelling.

I think anyone who is suggesting B&B to readers who have read and loved The Thirteenth Tale need to understand and communicate this difference.

Three Words That Describe This Book: macabre, atmospheric, subtle

Readalikes:  A perfect readalike here is Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, for two reasons. First both are dark, Gothic novels which focus on the funeral industry.  Second, and more importantly, see what I said about Her Fearful Symmetry in my review which is almost exactly what I communicated above about Setterfield's two books:

Recently I devoured Audrey Niffenegger's new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I was nervous before I began because I really enjoyedThe Time Traveler's Wife and the new book was getting mixed reviews. Well, I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry (herein, HFS) even more than The Time Traveler’s Wife (herein, TTW).
The reason I enjoyed the newer novel more and others disagree has to do with the difference in the appeal of each novel. The overall tones of these novels are on opposite ends of the spectrum. TTW is a love story with a science fiction element and a heart-warming ending. (click here to read my full report on TTW).
On the other hand, HFS is a dark ghost story about deep family secrets with seriously twisted characters and an unsettling ending.  I loved it! But this huge shift in tone, mood, and storyline focus can easily explain why fans of the more heartwarming TTW were disappointed.  Whereas Claire and Henry in TTW are good, well meaning, loving people, the main characters in HFS are manipulative, selfish, and mean.
The second half of  B&B also reminded me of one of my all time favorites, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser.  As I posted on The Browsers Corner:
Millhauser follows the life of entrepreneur Martin Dressler as he rises from cigar shop clerk to hotel magnate in the 19th Century in New York City.  Dressler’s outrageous imagination and desire to create a hotel that will be “a world within the world, rivaling the world,” and ultimately replacing the real world, is doomed for failure.
If you enjoyed the second half of B&B you will LOVE this suggestion.

Finally, for a more outside of the box readalike, I would suggest the graphic novel Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel. Click through to my review for the full details, but it is interesting to note that I thought of the connection between these books as I was reading B&B and jotted it down.  Later, when I went back to write this review I was happy to see The Thirteenth Tale and Her Fearful Symmetry listed in my Sailor Twain review as readalikes.

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