Bellman and Black is a dark, brooding and brilliant study of a man whose life is at first smiled upon and then struck through with utter disaster. From the beginning, he was especially talented and diligent businessman whose whole life eventually revolved around work. A number of reviews have remarked that this book was a let down after her utterly brilliant debut in The Thirteenth Tale. Indeed, some have gone on to say that it seems to be written by a different author. That puzzles me in that this seems to be exactly the kind of book she would write; it is in keeping with her writing style, her focus on characters and dark events overshadowing lives. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the narrative drive of The Thirteenth Tale, but it seems to match in almost every other way.
The protagonist, William Bellman, starts life a fairly normal lad with a bit of ambition and talent whose uncle runs the cloth mill, the villages main industry. Through his tutelage, William quickly becomes indispensable at the mill. He goes on to marry, Rose, the perfect girl, and have a grand family. Alas, he always worked a bit too much but not excessively so. That beings to change as he takes over the mill. Alas, tragedy strikes his life and his life is his work. He also now views his life through the lens of a mission; what he believes is a purpose to which he agreed. He made a kind of bargain with, what appears to be, a Grim Reaper with a nod to Norse mythology.
William Bellman spends his days delivering on his “deal” in spades and, at the same time, doing incredibly great distance. There are occasions that make William stop and reflect, something he is loathe to do. Unlike his business dealings, he does not deal with his inner devils straight on or, if he can help it, at all. Work allows him to avoid them. From time to time, we encounter Mr. Black, his silent partner, his inner demon. William does try to confront him, but only in terms of his deal, never dealing with his own issues. We even see a bit of the circle of life.
Through Bellman and Black, Ms. Setterwhite looks at what drives us, how we can use excuses to do what we want to do anyway and how we confuse doing things for a life:
Bellman nodded. Thought and memory. Time slowed while he applied himself. Here at Bellman & Black, he had thought of nothing but death for the last decade. Yet he had failed to devote a single moment to the thought of his own mortality. It was—almost—ludicrous. However had he come to forget such an important thing?
The descriptions of life, of work, of people and, yes, of rooks, is delicate, precise and, at times, hauntingly beautiful:
He is quite the opposite: a magician of the real. Ask your eyes, What color is light? They cannot tell you. But a rook can. He captures the light, splits it, absorbs some, and radiates the rest in a delightful demonstration of optics, showing you the truth about light that your own poor eyes cannot
As I am wont to do, I went between the Kindle and Audible audiobook. Jack Davenport (of Pirates of the Caribbean and Coupling fame) is the perfect voice for this book. The tone of his voice, the pacing of the narration and phrasing and emphasize of the words are absolutely spot on. It’s one of the best examples of straight narration I’ve heard. Whilst I recommend reading the book to linger on the language, I equally recommend this book based on the fantastic performance Mr. Davenport provides.
This is not a page turner or mystery in the normal sense of the term. There is no big reveal at the end, at least none that you might not guess. There is, however, language and drive, people’s dreams and loss and beautiful prose to portray it all.
For those that don’t need a fast ride, this meandering stream will provide many delights.