Homage to Dickens
IN the year of British author Diane Setterfield’s birth, 1964, The Beatles set the world on fire with their appearance on America’s The Ed Sullivan Show – the band going supernova internationally as a result of its airing.
Some 43 years later, Setterfield did something similar with her debut novel, the globally acclaimed, bestselling The Thirteenth Tale, though the blaze was lit by the Internet rather than by yesteryear’s exciting new media (as TV was in the 1960s).
This bookworm has read few more powerful or engaging novels this century. The Thirteenth Tale was a gothic masterpiece of highly rewarding complexity, with a beautifully embroidered narrative, and the power to awe.
Seven years is a long time between a smash-hit debut and its follow-up, but it has finally arrived, and with inevitably lofty expectations. Is Bellman & Black a worthy successor? Does she still have that magic?
Unfortunately, the answers are: “not really” and “not really”. Bellman & Black is a fairy good novel. But that’s like saying The Beatles were a fairly good band. You’re not expecting “fairly good” with Setterfield. Not after The Thirteenth Tale.
Bellman & Black is as atmospherically dark and brooding as her debut, but it is a less interesting and more straightforward outing into the Goth-land of Setterfield’s imagination; it’s missing the secrets, twists and turns, and the brilliant narrative trickery of The Thirteenth Tale.
Worse, the story is derivative and the characterizations are weak. Reading Bellman & Black reminded me of reading Alex Garland’s underwhelming The Tesseract, which followed his stunning 1996 debut, The Beach. In both cases, I thought: “What happened to the author? The flame is still there, but why is it so much dimmer?”
After a third novel, also underwhelming, Garland shifted medium and become a screenplay-writer of considerable renown. What does the future hold for Setterfield? One hopes a return to the form she unleashed in 2006. But back to the present, and to the product in hand.
Bellman & Black’s protagonist is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 10, made a bet with his chums that he could hit a crow with a stone from his catapult. As his missile arced through the air, Bellman realised in a fraction of a second that he didn’t actually want to kill the creature. But he won the bet – unfortunately for the crow, and, as the following chapters reveal, unfortunately for him.
This single incident foreshadows the rest of his life – crows and rooks become reoccurring and ominous motifs through the book.
Bellman’s adult life starts well. He marries the girl of his dreams, sires a large loving family, and discovers in himself a natural aptitude for business.
Indeed, the Bellman-the-businessman aspect of the book overly dominates, thereby diminishing its entertainment value. Page upon page delivers detailed information on retail transactions, outsourcing, vendor relationships, ledgers and accounting, and the financial banter of Victorian England.
But this being a Gothic novel, the Grim Reaper is never far away. One by one, people around Bellman die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a stranger in black, grinning at him knowingly.
The first to perish are relatives. Then his own children die. Then his wife. Eventually he ends up with just a single loved one, his favourite child, Dora.
As the years crawl by, William becomes a kind of doppelgänger of Charles Dickens’ most famous creation, Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol. While becoming obsessed with work and the bottom-line, Bellman reminds us of what money can and cannot buy. Duly a morality tale emerges, with a fairly simple equation at its core: compassion and love always trump business, profit-and-loss, and financial gain. That’s the way the human condition is.
But where A Christmas Carol has humour, pathos and, ultimately, redemption, Bellman & Black is much less satisfying.
Through her elegant prose, Setterfield remains a master of mood and place, and her descriptions of Bellman’s factory and other locales are historically fascinating. One thing you can’t deny Setterfield: she certainly does her research. The detail is so sharp, one wonders if the author is some kind of time-traveller.
Less compelling are Bellman’s ghosts, whether “real” or of his mind. These seem to be too ephemeral to really spook. More chilling are the crows that flit through these pages, making us wonder if the young Bellman would have had an entirely different life if he had missed with his catapult all those years ago.
In life as in fiction, one random act can change everything forever. This powerful message does add philosophical heft to Bellman & Black.
The Thirteenth Tale took Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and echoed and warped it so eerily that the author earned gushing plaudits for her deft interpretation.
Just as The Thirteenth Tale was homage to Charlotte Brontë, Bellman & Black homages Charles Dickens, but less skilfully.
It’s never easy to follow-up an instant-classic masterpiece with a crowd-pleaser for your global readership. Just ask Alex Garland.