Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield is the long awaited book from the the author who gave us the amazingly atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable The Thirteenth Tale seven years ago. Like Thirteenth Tale, Bellman and Black is about family and memory and coming to terms with the past; the writing, too, is lovely but flows a bit differently than what I had come to expect from her previous book. Although there are some creepy descriptions in keeping with the dark, Victorian setting, there are also long, detailed passages about the workings of textile mills and setting up of retail businesses interspersed with short, almost sketch-like references to many of the characters (except for Seamstress #9 who was quite extensively portrayed.) It all took a bit of getting used to.
There are, however, interesting asides throughout the book about the crow-like rooks, which, along with being the type of bird William killed as a child, also make regular appearances in the background of William's growing up and into his adult life. The rooks are there and they, as well as this mysterious stranger named Black, seem to be watching him as he tries ever harder to keep ahead of the deaths that are happening all around him. His determination to keep his remaining daughter safe and alive starts morphing into a self-destructive obsession with work and business and bargaining, the conclusion of which reminds me of the fable in Harry Chapin's song Cats in the Cradle.
An okay read, yes, but not quite as solid as I had been hoping.
Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don't forget…
Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William's life his fortunes begin to turn - and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business. And Bellman and Black is born. (back cover)
He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar inserted in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed within him. It traveled from his chest along the veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no word for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent. pg5
His happiness and his success, that he had taken to be solid things, hewn out of his own effort and talent, had proved as fragile as the seed head of dandilions; all it took was for this unsuspecting competitor to release his breath and the clockhead disappeared. Why, he wondered, had he never known? He, who knew everything? What had kept him in ignorance all these years? pg127