Review of BELLMAN & BLACK by DIANE SETTERFIELD
(review based on an advance reading copy)
My investment in this book waxed and waned, but every time I almost dismissed the story it snuck up on me with some twist or phrase that lured back my attention. I found the writing wonderful and distinct from the start. I haven’t read Setterfield’s popular first book THE THIRTEENTH TALE, but that might have been an asset. Readers I know who read her first novel seem disappointed in this newest work. I had a fresh perspective and found BELLMAN & BLACK an enjoyable, if not extraordinary, read.
Though advertising calls this a ghost story, that’s a misleading label. BELLMAN & BLACK is literary fiction. Magical realism perhaps, but thematically the story still feels closer to realism than magic. There’s a sense of mystery, a fixation with ravens and crows, and - yes - a possible ghost that plays a smaller role than the promotion implies. More so it’s a weaving biography of a driven man with little life outside of work.
Some people dissect stories based on factors like characters, setting, writing, pace, etc, arguing that an individual reader is more likely to choose books based on their preferred factors than things like genre labels. I know I’m primarily character-fixated when reading and BELLMAN & BLACK isn’t a character-driven story. Setting and writing contribute more to the book’s strengths. My second preferred factor is probably plot (with the third being writing) and this novel isn’t that plot-driven either. The focus feels fuzzy and unclear, a long sweeping view of one man’s life. Additionally some of the more fantastical scenes are described with such confusing phrasing that I’m left not knowing what just happened. My point here is that character- and plot-focused readers like myself won’t enjoy this book as much as those drawn primarily towards strong writing and evocative setting. As my third interest, the writing saved this book for me, but personally I’ve never had strong attachments to setting.
The pace feels rather jerky, adding to that sense of an unclear focus. Sometimes the story zooms in to follow closely on Bellman’s heels with detailed descriptions about the processes of dying cloth while other times the pace jolts forward with summaries of numerous dramatic developments over significant chunks of time. Along this note, the Bellman & Black store of the title doesn’t even enter the story until well over halfway through the book.
Setterfield portrays Bellman almost as a super human or at least an unbelievably hyper-productive human. I found myself irritated more than once with Bellman’s overdone perfection: he accomplishes more in one day - one hour - than any human possibly could, wins people over with a sentence - a look sometimes, and seems an immediate expert in any new field he enters. The text informs the reader of these things not once, but again and again and again. One could argue that Bellman’s implausible accomplishments are part of the magical realism, but I suppose my frustration stems from seeing success portrayed as effortless. In particular, anyone who has owned a business or worked in retail is likely to scoff and roll their eyes at how fantastically smoothly everything runs for Bellman when he opens his unusual store.
Speaking of which, his store does raise plenty of questions interesting for discussion. I want to avoid spoilers since it enters the plot so late, but suffice it to say that Bellman’s making quite a lot of money from other people’s misfortunate...and believing himself a saint for doing so.
I’ve listed far more criticisms than praise is this review, but I wanted to end on a positive note. Strange as it sounds, it wasn’t the story that impressed me in this book but smaller details. Setterfield has a real knack for observing small and mundane minutiae about the every day world. As one example, I adored young Fox’s realizations after leaving Bellman’s employ. When working for Bellman, Fox grew accustomed to the fast pace: filling every minute - every second - with production. Then he stepped back into the regular world and felt immediately frustrated with everyone else’s slowness and inefficiency. In particular, I liked his comments on how he often grasps someone’s meaning near the beginning of a sentence (depending on circumstances, even before they speak), but still feels obliged to listen to the entire sentence placed out painfully slowly, word by word. BELLMAN & BLACK doesn’t have a flashy plot but it boasts countless smaller moments than capture the truth of everyday life.