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'Bellman & Black' partly dull with threads of magic

Diane Setterfield's 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, made it to the top of the New York Times' best-seller list, and deservedly so. It was a compelling read from first page to last.

"Bellman & Black" by Diane Setterfield. From the book jacket
"Bellman & Black" by Diane Setterfield. From the book jacketRead more

Bellman & Black

By Diane Setterfield

Atria. 328 pp. $26.99

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Diane Setterfield's 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, made it to the top of the New York Times' best-seller list, and deservedly so. It was a compelling read from first page to last.

Setterfield's new novel, Bellman & Black, isn't a match for its predecessor. Bellman & Black has its moments - quite a few of them, in fact, and some of them some gripping, some magical, some downright terrifying - but it also has its longueurs.

To get a handle on it we must first consider the rooks (a European variety of crow), which serve as a kind of key signature for the narrative.

In the very first paragraph, we are told that William Bellman, the novel's protagonist, does not spend his last moments thinking of the "calculation, contracts, and business deals that made up his existence." No, his thoughts "were drawn to those who had already crossed into that unknown territory: his wife, three of his children, his uncle, cousin, and some childhood friends." Leaving him time for just one last remembrance: of a rook.

Roaming the woods and meadows with his chums, a 10-year-old William Bellman had boasted he could hit a rook high in a treetop with his slingshot. And he had done precisely that.

Splaying one of the fallen bird's wings, the boys discovered that "a rook's feathers can shimmer with dazzling peacock colors," though the bird remains a "satin black [that] softens and deepens to velvet black." The rook, it seems, is "the essence of black."

The novel is punctuated throughout with brief commentaries, in boldface, about rooks.

"The rooks that lived in Will Bellman's oak tree," we are told, "were descendants of Thought and Memory. . . . Rooks are made of Thought and Memory. They know everything and do not forget."

The rooks figure from time to time in the narrative as well. On the day Bellman's uncle died, "a pair of rooks flew airily overhead, talking philosophy and laughing."

His father having taken off for parts unknown and never being heard from again, Bellman is raised by his mother, who dotes on him. His uncle takes him into the family business, a cloth mill. Handsome, personable, with a fine singing voice, Bellman is also imaginative, innovative, and industrious. He thrives at the mill and the mill in turn thrives through his exertions. He marries happily. He loves his wife and children, and they love him.

But then his mother dies, and so do most of the others he loves and is loved by. Gripped by a kind of permanent shock, he wraps himself into a cocoon of labor, and death becomes his business.

For he keeps noticing at the funerals a figure clad in black. Eventually, he gets to meet the figure and talk with him, and Bellman - at the figure's suggestion, he is sure - establishes in London a grand funeral emporium, Bellman & Black. He makes certain that the figure he has named Black is a silent partner in the enterprise - a generous percentage of the profits is put aside for him. The business is immensely successful until fashions in funerals start to change, and Bellman begins to panic.

There are several problems here.

One is the matter of moral proportion. Bellman happens to be a pretty decent guy. If the misfortunes that befall him are some sort of retribution for killing a bird as a child, they seem excessive.

Moreover, his withdrawal into work, from waking to sleeping, turns him into rather a dull figure who makes for equally dull reading. The minutiae of cloth-making and undertaking quickly grow wearisome.

The denouement, with its vivid depiction of Bellman's interior turmoil, is certainly both moving and disturbing, and the final encounter with Black downright heartrending.

But in the end, it is the rooks and the mysterious figure in black that prove to be the liveliest characters in the book. Unfortunately, their appearances are too brief and infrequent.