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Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story

Bellman & Black - Diane Setterfield The Thirteenth Tale is one of my favorite books. It's a Gothic tale about a mysterious writer, as well as being an ode to books and reading. On Goodreads, I have one quote on my profile page, and it's from that book:

"My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."

It's a good summation of the draw of fiction, and anyone who finds something to like in that quote should read the book. Aside from quotes like that, the book is a good, mysterious, sometimes-creepy story. I've recommended it a lot over the years.

Bellman & Black is Setterfield's first novel since having published The Thirteenth Tale, and I, like many people, had high expectations for it, which might be a large part why this book was so disappointing. It's certainly well-written -- Setterfield's writing is poetic without being obtuse, and she does a good job with writing tragic characters -- but the story is lacking in so many ways. The story of Bellman & Black is that of Bellman himself (the mysterious Black doesn't feature in the story until after the halfway point in the book), and so much of his life is hardly worth writing about. He's an exceptional businessman, turning a textile mill from a successful business to an enterprise, and a large part of the first half of the novel is reading about how he does it, and how much other people admire him for it. I understand its point -- in order to build up the significance of Bellman's tragedy, the author first had to show how much he had to lose -- but it doesn't make for interesting reading.

The opening scene of the novel is of Bellman, as a young boy, killing a rook with a slingshot. He doesn't do it out of malice, but because it's an impossible shot that he's determined to make. From that point forward, rooks feature in Bellman's life, particularly when something terrible happens to him. And they do. Most of what Bellman gained in the first half of the novel is lost, possibly because he killed that rook so long ago. He's haunted by the rooks and the mysterious Black, but in more ways than one, he's haunted by his own past.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Thematically, it's interesting, and the book gives you much to think about upon reflection, but the book wasn't exciting or engaging. By the time I reached the last 100 pages of the book, I was just ready to be finished with it so I could move on to something else. The Thirteenth Tale had a thoughtful ending, but it also had a compelling story going on to support that ending. Bellman & Black is more like something one reads for a literature assignment -- it's not particularly interesting, but it raises a lot of talking points. It's hard to recommend because of that, even to fans of her previous book.