Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tale for a chilly winter's night does not deliver (Books - Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield)

I remember liking Diane Setterfield's debut The Thirteenth Tale, but I simply could not wrap my enthusiasm around her latest offering, Bellman & Black (Emily Bestler Books, Atria, 2013).  The ingredients are there - Victorian gothic atmosphere, a tale of financial romance - but it doesn't add up.  The human side of this story is really a romance, despite the fact that it is less about people relating to people than it is about one person, William Bellman, relating to money.  Tales featuring business or law can work - Dickens has certainly done it, but in a more complex context.  One of the chief problems with this story is that Bellman is the only developed character.  Everyone else is his prop.  Even Bellman himself is created out of hyperbole - this is a critical flaw, since the book, which flirts with the grand subjects of death and mortality, never manages the gravitas it aspires to.

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?
For a book about death to wield power, one has to feel loss, and for one to feel loss one has to care about the characters, but the people here were one-dimensional, so I was never touched.  The other key event in this novel is a thoughtless childhood crime Bellman commits in killing a raven - gaining power at the death of another creature.  This becomes the set up for everything else that follows.  Setterfield concludes many chapters with short passages printed in different typeface, as though from a historic volume about ravens.  This had the aim, I assume, of creating mystique about the black bird who, although never seen, is the other title character of this novel - Black.  I found the writing too obvious on this point to succeed in creating a real creepy gothic pall.  There was no mystery to this tale and little sophistication leaving the novel heavy on superficial atmosphere but free of tension.  It's a shame, I was looking forward to an entertaining read in this vein, it would have been just the tale for a chilly night.

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