I’m not sure I fully understood the point of Setterfield’s novel, but Bellman and Black certainly offers a radical departure from her previous title, The Thirteenth Tale. This novel is also far from its advertised ghost story, reading more like an episode of PBS’s current The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge where a working-class merchant with a penchant for the entrepreneurial creates a successful haberdashery/department store, all the while haunted by death and by great fortune and by tragedy.
William Bellman is only ten when he’s drawn together with the other neighborhood boys at the beginning of the summer. At such a young age, Will is mostly pleased with the world and with himself. An easy learner, each day Will exults in a “new sense of mastery” of his life and the world around him. Enjoying the easy camaraderie of his friends, Will makes a bet that he can hit a rook with his new catapult. When the bird lies dead and Will and his friends attempt to bury it, something in Will’s chest is removed, and he begins to feel a sentiment he never expected.
Setterfield gives great insight into Will’s tumultuous life and the struggles he faces as he grows older, emboldened by the colors of his pastoral surroundings that “shimmered, alive with a vividness that played tricks on the eye.” While Will becomes haunted by a feeling of “blackness” and the inky shades of blue, purple and green, the killing of the rook becomes a powerful story told and retold and acted out as the boys pretend to kill whole parishes of imaginary birds.
With each passing chapter, the mysteries and oddities in Will’s life grow exponentially, becoming important elements of Setterfield’s puzzle. Hiding the events that occurred that lazy summer day, Will gets a job spinning and shearing at his uncle’s Mill House. From the basest menial to the most highly skilled, Will proves to be both master and hand. He’s talented and compassionate; he can see through tradition and understanding things for the way they are: “the past has no hold on him. Perhaps that’s why his vision of the future was so strong.” Continuing to hold onto his painful secrets, Will becomes so successful that he and his family no longer have to live in poverty without any support.
Among the many details about yarns and wools , to the ins-and-outs of Mill House, to Will’s constant registering of something (a momentary darkening, something at the window that blocks the light, “a dark figure”) to his beloved wife, Rose, and his four lovely children, Will tries to make-believe he’s immune to the woes and troubles that beset other people—an understandable notion, considering that Setterfield’s great subject is the chasm between our desires, dreams and longings and a universe that is chaotic if not outright malevolent.
William sees himself as invulnerable and safe until the rooks appear once again in the oaks by the cottage as he drifts into sleep. Shortly thereafter, fever and illness cause dear friends and family to be buried. Losing himself in complicated calculations and “the measurement of bereavement,” Will counts, weighs and evaluates the notion of grief. With his daughter Dora now a skeleton sprawled in her bed, more dead than alive, a sense of indebtedness haunts William along with a new set of responsibilities as he strains to hear an echo from the past and an indication of the conversation he might have had.
Although I found it a rather tedious read, I thought the best parts of the novel were the later sections, when William builds his massive Bellman and Black store amid London’s vast sprawl of housing, commerce and population (“There was not a living soul in this city, not so far as the eye could see, that would not at some point have need of the goods and services provided by Bellman & Black”).
As is often the case with Setterfield, such observations fulfill both a narrative and a metaphoric function. While William’s association with death becomes “professional”yet sometimes savage and violent, his life is mostly an exercise in thought and memory as he turns his mind’s eye to the past, to a spare, unsettling blackness filled with menace.