Sunday, October 06, 2013

Review: Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Because Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale is one of my favorite books, I was looking forward to reading Bellman & Black. 

However, Bellman & Black is very different from Thirteenth Tale.

While Thirteenth Tale evoked the ghosts of the Bronte sisters, Bellman & Black seems to pay tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, with its mysterious black birds (rooks) and a protagonist who becomes his own worst enemy as he’s consumed with guilt for an act he committed in his youth.

I expected this story would be scary or creepy or suspenseful.  I even saw some people call it a ghost story, but after reading this, I wasn’t convinced there was an actual ghost.  Mostly, I found this book to be very sad, too sad even. 

Bellman is an interesting character, and I felt he had a lot of potential.  In the beginning, we learn all about his complicated childhood, and his connection to the Bellman family.  I assumed more would be made of this, that family secrets would eventually come back to haunt him.  In fact I kept waiting for that to happen, but never did.

We’re told that Bellman does something when he’s young.  He’s showing off for his friends, but he had no malicious intent, and in my opinion, the act was pretty minor.  I can see how a child might view this as something major, but I can’t accept that the act itself would have such horrible repercussions.  I try not to give away important information in my reviews – I hate spoilers – but the horrible thing he did was kill a bird.  A bird.  And for the rest of his life, he’s punished because he accidentally killed a bird?  I used to work in an office building in Dallas, the walls were mostly windows, and birds flew into the glass and died on an almost daily basis.  Birds are not that important.  I can’t accept the idea that ending a bird’s life should result in Bellman’s life being ruined, forever.

This is why I think maybe the punishment existed only in Bellman’s mind.  Maybe he didn’t feel he deserved to be happy.  Maybe he associated all the bad things in his life with that one act.  But the author kept adding these bits at the end of each chapter, about the birds, as if to convince the readers that the birds were some important, powerful creatures who were out to get revenge.  If we were really supposed to believe the birds were so powerful though, I needed more than a few paragraphs about myths and powers associated with rooks.

The general story though is Bellman works very hard for everything he has.  He gets married, has a few children, and loves his family very much.  He tries to take care of everyone, while also running the family business – which he earned through hard work, more than family connections.  But he seems to be cursed because he killed a bird as a young boy.  By the end of the book, I guess we’re also supposed to think he worked too hard?  In his worst moment, he’s being told to remember, as if he’d somehow forgotten all he had and lost.  But I never got that impression, I never felt that he didn’t appreciate all he had.  I felt he did appreciate what he had and that’s why he worked so had to keep it and always improve upon what he had.  I couldn’t get past the idea that he was unfairly punished.  I felt that even when he was fully committed to his work, he still always showed he loved his family and cared about the well being of the people who depended on him. 

I cared about Bellman, so in that aspect the author succeeded.  There were moments that especially broke my heart, like when he’s looking through old books, and finds notes from his daughter where she’s added “Kiss Dora” to his to-do list.  Or when he’s not allowed near his sick baby, so he climbs the ladder so he can look through the window.  At one point, I set the book aside thinking I needed to stop reading because it was much too sad. 

Despite my anger at what happened in the books, I will concede that it is well written.  I didn’t want to put it down.  Though mostly I kept reading in hopes there would be some big revelation to explain why all of this was happening.  I suppose any book that makes me feel something so strongly, happy or sad, must have some merit. 

In the end, I felt cheated.  I’m not saying I needed a happy ending, but I wanted a reason or explanation of some sort for Bellman’s suffering.  Maybe I missed something or didn’t fully understand what I was reading, but I can’t accept that so much bad should happen to one person because he killed a bird – I don’t care what kind of bird it was. 

I received a review copy via NetGalley.
Read October 6, 2013.

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