Oy. First thing: the third star of this rating is entirely for Jack Davenport, the narrator of the audiobook, whose voice is like sex. When he talks, my ovaries try to leap out of my body like that tiny alien in Alien. I try to explain to them this is counterproductive, but it continues to happen. Second, this book was incredibly frustrating and I hope writing this review will help me to sort out why.
I read Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, several years ago, and then again a few months ago. It’s a gothic, sort of meta tale about stories and families, and while there are bits that don’t work, overall it’s a fun story that succeeds in what it sets out to do. For this reason, I was understandably excited by the prospect of a second offering from an author who held up well on re-read. Second books are tough anyway, but especially in comparison to her first, Bellman & Black is a disappointment, and I think there are several main problems with it.
As fair warning, the remainder of this review will contain spoilers.
It starts out pretty good, actually. The protagonist is William Bellman, a nice, normal boy who kills a rook with a slingshot one day with a few friends, feels bad about it, and then does his best to forget the incident entirely. We then follow William as he grows into a competent young man, who turns out to be great at his business, and who has a loving wife and four children. One by one, as William’s fortunes seem to rise, however, his aquaintances, his friends, and his family start dying. And at each funeral appears a mysterious man in black whom no one seems to know.
From there, William begins to suspect a connection between all these deaths and the man in black. And when death comes for his family in the form of a plague, and his wife and three of his children die, with his oldest daughter on the brink, he goes to a graveyard and makes a deal with the man in black to save her. He believes that in exchange for his daughter’s life — who does miraculously survive, although she is greatly weakened — he is to start a business. There is opportunity, he learns from Black, in the business of death. And so he starts Bellman & Black, the world’s first funeral emporium. It will have everything needed upon the death of a loved one, and death never goes out of style. At this point, we are more than half-way through the book. The remainder of the book, quite literally, is focused on a detailed describing from the ground up of exactly, and I mean exactly, how Bellman funds, builds, supplies, opens, and maintains his business. In excruciating detail. He ignores the companionship of his daughter, the possible romantic companionship of an equally lonely woman, and the offers of friendship from both old and new friends. His business becomes his entire life. And then his life ends, and so does the book.
No one can fault Setterfield’s prose, but from the start this book has some conceptual problems, and some stylistic ones as well that are connected to the conceptual ones. The first problem is the distance of the narration from the characters. There’s a storyteller quality to the narration, which isn’t surprising as that was a feature in The Thirteenth Tale as well. Where this one goes wrong, I think, is that it’s such a distant third person POV that it distances us emotionally from the characters as well, especially Bellman. And I’m pretty sure this is intentional. This is unfortunate because of what happens later. If you’re going to fuck with your readers’ expectations, you better damn well at least provide them with characters they can care about, instead of doing all you can to distance them from each other. And what’s worse, the characters you do end up caring for die. Every single one of them, in what ends up feeling like an extended torture session. Setterfield builds up Bellman as a man who knows what he is doing, a competent man who loves his family. And then she takes it all away from him in such a way that both he and we as readers believe it is because of that one act: the killing of the rook when he was eleven years old. This is not fun to read about, and it’s also uninteresting in the way it’s executed. But even this wouldn’t be as big of a problem if it wasn’t for what happens in the second half of the book.
Seriously, spoiler-phobes beware, the major spoiler of this book about to be revealed in order to discuss my problems with it.
So the whole book, as previously stated, I was under the impression that all these deaths were a punishment for young William killing that rook for no other reason than to see if he could. The rook he killed, as the narrator tells us, was a descendant of the two original rooks, who were called Thought and Memory (an idea taken from Norse Mythology, where the two birds were Odin’s companions). I’m pretty sure I was meant to interpret events this way, as William certainly does. But it was not a fun or interesting reading experience to watch as Bellman’s loved ones were winnowed away for a stupid childhood crime that Bellman even had the grace to regret. It seemed silly and pointless for the rooks to have exacted revenge in this way, which turns out to be the right opinion to have, as both Bellman and I were wrong. The rooks seemingly had nothing to do with the deaths, and even the “bargain” that Bellman made with Black (the anthropomorphized representative of the rooks) turns out to be all in his head. He thought of Bellman & Black all on his own, and he devoted his life to it to exclusion of all else, becoming the richest and loneliest man in England, for no reason at all. The opportunity Black spoke of in the graveyard? From what I can gather (it’s not spelled out explicitly in the text), the killing of the rook in William’s childhood did nothing more than mark him as a human of interest to the rooks, who look at us as entertainment. And when they saw Bellman pulling away from his own life, away from human contact and cleaving more towards his business, with each subsequent death, the wished to remind him of the opportunities he was pissing away: to remember his life and his loved ones, and to not waste the rest of his life going further down that path (which he ends up doing anyway).
The thing about all of this is that it does sound intriguing when you lay it out like that. And it’s not even that I necessarily mind being tricked by a text. In fact, I have previously enjoyed being beat upside the head with my own expectations on more than a few occasions (psychologists do say the most pleasant human emotion is surprise). But this didn’t feel like a surprise. It felt like betrayal. And coming after literally hundreds of pages of business description and assorted drudgery, I (and I’m sure many readers) was not in a suitable emotional place to accept what had just been handed to me. It’s also clear by the end that Setterfield engaged in that timeless mindfuckery known as ambiguous symbolism, so that even if you try to pin down the story in your mind and come to terms with it, you’re never going to succeed.
The other main problem, I believe I’m going to conclude, is that this book was marketed to the wrong sort of reader. A “hauntingly perfect ghost story,” as the blurb claims, this is not. It’s only a ghost story in the most metaphorical sense of the phrase, a fact that’s only realized when you’re all the way through the book, and your expectations have already been frustrated. This book should have been marketed to literary fiction readers, those classic masochists who enjoy being made to feel stupid by the books they read, who not only require ambiguity from their literature, but revel in downright confusion. In fact, the more confusing, the more steeped in arcane symbolism, the more brilliant the book for these readers. But this book will not be read by that type of reader. This book will mostly be read by people like me who liked Setterfield’s first book, and who try to avoid books that actively try to obscure their own purpose.
Give it a go if you’re curious, but my advice is to let it be, unless you just have a hankering for Jack Davenport to read to you for a while. In that case, focus on the sounds. Ignore the story. I think you’ll be better off.