Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & BlackTitle: Bellman & Black
Author: 
Diane Setterfield
Published: 5 November 2013
Publisher: 
Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Simon & Schuster)
Genre: 
historical, literary, fantasy
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

When William Bellman is ten years old, he kills a rook with a seemingly impossible shot from his catapult. His friends are impressed, but something about it unnerves William. Later, he sees a boy dressed in black standing under the tree where the rook died. The next day he wakes with a terrible fever and applies his mind to an extraordinary mental feat: forgetting.

William grows up into a smart, handsome, hardworking man. His mother has had a tough time raising him alone, after being abandoned by her husband and shunned by his wealthy parents, but she and William have a strong relationship and he manages to find his way. His uncle hires him to work in the Bellman family wool mill, and William quickly learns how every aspect of the business works, finds the flaws, and suggests improvements. Thanks to him, the mill prospers. When he eventually takes over, he makes innovations and expansions that lead to unprecedented productivity and profits. He marries a beautiful woman and has four children.

But William’s otherwise perfect life is marred by escalating tragedy. The people related to him begin to die and every time William attends a funeral, he sees a mysterious man in black who doesn’t appear to be in mourning. When William is at his lowest after losing his family, the man in black finally approaches an opportunity. This encounter is the birth of Bellman and Black, a macabre business whose amazing success is matched only by William Bellman’s misery.

William is a haunted man, and it’s only in that sense that you could possibly call this a ghost story, which is what the novel is being marketed as. I think it’s extremely misguided. I wouldn’t even say that the book has a ghost in any traditional understanding of the word. Genre fans and ghost story fans will be drawn in, only to frustrated and disappointed. It’s like asking for bad ratings.

Bellman & Black is more like literary historical fiction with just the tiniest sliver of fantasy. It’s a psychological study of William and focuses heavily on the businesses he runs. First the mill, and then Bellman & Black. At the end of some of the chapters there are a few paragraphs about rooks – factual trivia, rooks in myth, fictional musing about what rooks do in their leisure time, a bit of rook philosophy, and collective nouns for rooks.

At first I enjoyed William’s story. It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but it gave me a great understanding of his industrious character, and it was nice to see this good, hard-working person get the success he deserved. Sometimes it’s comforting to read about good people living happy lives, and the only bad thing you could say about the young William Bellman is that he’s not a self-reflective man. I also had to admire Setterfield for the research she put into this. We get a detailed description of work at the mill, the process that turns raw wool into dyed cloth.

But what seemed like a slow start turned out to be a slow book. The pace never really changes; the story just become very tragic at times. Nothing about it is particularly creepy. After learning about the mill in the first part, you learn about how William sets up and runs Bellman & Black in the second part. He works constantly, sourcing the very best cloth, leather, paper. etc. and hiring the best people for his business. He pays attention to the tiniest of details, personally checks on almost everything, and works longer hours than anyone.

In fact, we see the work ethic William displayed in his youth turn into insanity. Initially, he uses work to escape from grief. Later, it becomes his entire life. His mind is always working, always going through the numbers and looking for solutions. He works nineteen hours a day, stopping only to sleep. He never takes the opportunity to enjoy his immense wealth, never eats a decadent meal or indulges in personal comforts. He just works and works and works, desperately trying to avoid even a moment of self-reflection, afraid of letting his mind wander. Because there are times when he has horrific dreams, terrifying visions of black wings, and is tormented by the spectre of the man he calls Black. William would prefer not to have to think about any of it, but at the same time he’s drawn bizarre conclusions that drive his behaviour.

It’s because of this that Bellman & Black is supposedly a ghost story, and why I said William Bellman is a haunted man. If that sounds good to you, then go for it. It’s a well-written book that I think was badly marketed.

But even though I tried to read it for what it is rather than what I was led to expect, I found it boring. Learning about the mill was fine; being immersed in the functioning of Bellman & Black was horribly tedious. William too becomes a very dreary character, and there are few others to give us a break from him. In fact, all the other characters are pretty flat and some exist only so that William can be affected by their deaths. Many aspects of his character are fascinating, but ultimately he’s a drag.

The rook trivia was the only aspect of the book that I found rewarding. I told two friends about it and they were so intrigued by the rooks that that was enough to make them want to read the book. The downside, I think, is that rooks aren’t very well integrated into the story. They appear often, but their links to the story are tenuous – William is scared of them, his daughter likes to draw them, they’re seen watching the characters, they have stunning black feathers and William becomes an expert in the colour black for business reasons, etc.

The ending, where we sort of learn what the point of all this was, is deeply disappointing. Honestly, if the blurb had been a better reflection of the book, if I’d known what this was really about, I would not have read it.

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Review of The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale

The Bone Dragon by Alexia CasaleTitle: The Bone Dragon
Author: 
Alexia Casale
Publisher: 
Faber and Faber
Published: 
2 May 2013
Genre: 
YA, fantasy (sort of)
Source: 
NetGalley
Rating:
 7/10

For four years, 14-year-old Evie has been living with broken ribs after being abused by her grandparents. Although she was adopted by Amy and Paul, who proved to be loving, devoted parents, it took three years before she trusted them enough to tell them about the pain and what it meant. When the novel opens she wakes up in hospital after her operation. As a memento, the doctor gives her the piece of rib that they removed. When she goes home to recover, Evie’s Uncle Ben suggests she make something out of the piece of rib, and she decides on a dragon – her ideal pet. Uncle Ben carves the bone into shape and Evie spends her recovery time etching scales and other details into the bone.

She only wishes her dragon could be real: “my chest was tight with longing. If I had a dragon, I’d never be powerless again”. And, inexplicably, Evie’s desperate wish comes true – the dragon comes to life at night and becomes her tiny but powerful guardian. Under the dragon’s direction, Evie sneaks out of the house at night and roams the almost mystical marshland of her neighbourhood. It is the dragon’s way of helping her heal and come to terms with the abuse and neglect she has suffered. But the dragon has a mysterious plan too, and he’s guiding Evie in the preparations for it. There is unfinished business that Evie cannot handle on her own, and that Paul, Amy and Ben could never handle for her.

At first glance, The Bone Dragon looks like a fantasy novel, but in truth it’s more a psychological drama that walks a fine line between fantasy and realism. At the borderline is the dragon – we never know if it really comes to life or if it’s only a product of Evie’s imagination and desperation. Initially it seems real, and indeed the simplest interpretation of this story is that the dragon comes to life. But as the story progresses you realise that Evie isn’t doing anything that she couldn’t do by herself. The dragon is certainly real to her in some way, but it might simply be a psychological tool, a means of pushing herself do dangerous, daring things, or another persona that does things the original Evie can’t or won’t. Whether she’s conscious of this psychological split is debatable; both possibilities are equally unsettling.

It does however, make The Bone Dragon one of the most sophisticated and psychologically compelling YA novels I’ve encountered. As I read, and then as I went through my review notes and re-considered the story, I was increasingly impressed by the psychology of Evie’s character. Some of the flaws that had bothered me actually became less significant as I admired the novel’s strengths.

Let me get the flaws out of the way. Or rather, just the flaw that bothered me the most: the night trips are pretty boring. They have the potential to be the most beautiful and exciting aspect of the book, but most of the time nothing happens on these brief adventures. You see, the dragon keeps his plan secret from Evie, and the narrative never reveals what kinds of preparations they’re making (although if you pay attention to other parts of the story you can guess). Even Evie gets frustrated with his secrecy:

‘What I want is for you not to speak in riddles the whole time. We’ve passed the point when it seemed clever and reached the bit where it’s just tedious,’

But the Dragon also tells Evie that it’s it’s part of his ‘contract’ with her that she can’t know everything and has to trust him. This sounds a bit silly; it’s more like the author’s plot device for keeping the big plan a mystery. The consequence is that, for the reader, it seems like the characters are just walking around. The only things driving the narrative here are the descriptions of the seemingly magical nightscape and a little mystery that Evie stumbles upon: Ben and Paul are going out on Friday nights to do something dangerous. They don’t want to tell Amy about it, but Ben thinks they should tell Evie, so what could it be? This question doesn’t carry enough intrigue to make the night trips more interesting though, and the descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere are wasted when there’s no action to accompany them. So my mind tended to wander as well, and I struggled to concentrate during these parts.

I was waiting for the story to get back to the real world, to Evie’s life and mind. At first we see her as a damaged but recovering young girl. Our first impressions are dominated by the overwhelming pain of the slowly healing wound in her side. For a while, she can’t move without pain, and needs Amy’s help to shower or walk up the stairs. Even when she recovers enough to go back to school she has to be careful.

Her parents arrange for one of her teachers, Ms Winters, to have regular counselling sessions with Evie, and these are very illuminating for her character; I looked forward to them. But even though the first-person narration puts us right in Evie’s head, we are never given the specifics of what happened to her; there are enough hints to guess at the facts, but Evie withholds the details:

Some things should never be said. Not out loud in clear, simple words. You talk around them. You leave gaps and blanks. You use other words and talk in curves and arcs for the worst things because you need to keep them like mist. Words are dangerous. Like a spell, if you name the mist, call out all of the words that describe it sharp and clear, you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands. Better that it stays like water, slipping between your fingers.

Our understanding of the abuse comes from its effect on Evie’s body and mind. We learn how much she hates her mother Fiona, who recently died of cancer. As far as Evie’s concerned, Fiona got what she deserved; she wasn’t the one who abused Evie, but she allowed it to happen because she was weak and cowardly.

Not surprisingly, Evie’s experiences have made her incredibly cynical. She’s given up on God and prayer because that never helped her when she needed it most. She knows that life just goes on even when it’s more unjust or unbearable than seems possible: “there are infinite places beyond unbearable”. As her friend Lynne later says, Evie also tends to expect the worst of everyone. She hasn’t told her two friends the truth about what happened, assuming it’ll just become humiliating gossip. She assumed Amy and Paul would never really treat her as their child. She was shocked to find that they loved her and never acted as if she could be returned, even when she made them angry.

The love that Amy, Paul and Ben show for Evie offers a comforting balance for the harsher parts of the narrative, especially Evie’s anger and cynicism. Nevertheless, as the story continues, you start to realise that Evie is perhaps more damaged that you initially assumed, and her narration becomes increasingly unreliable. This becomes particularly noticeable with the issue of Sonny Rawlins, a school bully who seems to focus on Evie. Evie hates him and understandably so, but there are few details that blur the issue. For example, Evie tells Ms Winters that Sonny Rawlins has been throwing eggs at their house. This comes as a complete surprise to the reader – it’s the first time she mentions something so upsetting. It suggests that Evie might be lying, making a stronger case against Sonny Rawlins. And believe me, this isn’t the only glimpse you’ll get of her vindictive streak.

Evie knows the world is unjust, but she still wants payback:

It’s all bound up with how angry, angry, angry I am that I never get to hurt anyone half as much as they hurt me.

 

 Usually Amy would tell me stuff about ‘an eye for an eye making us all blind’ and I know Gandhi said it and it was a smart thing to say if we want the world to be a good place. Only it doesn’t feel like that. And the worst bit is that I know that if I did make Sonny Rawlins pay, he’d never dare to even look at me wrong again. It wouldn’t be like the time with the flowers, or the cigarettes, or every other little thing since, when my pushing back against his attempts to hurt me have only made him try harder. It wouldn’t just be a little victory in the moment, making sure his hatefulness backfires […] No, if I ever really made him pay, that would be the end of it.

 

I don’t want Paul and Amy fighting this battle for me because they don’t understand how much I want Sonny Rawlins to pay. They’d never make him sorry enough. They just don’t have it in them.  And I love them for it. I love that they don’t know how wonderful, and terrible, it is to be powerful. I couldn’t  bear for them to lose that… that innocence because of me.

 

The issue of innocence is a particularly interesting one, and I found it to be one of the most memorable parts of the novel. Evie actually considers Amy, Paul and Ben to be innocent in ways that she is not, because innocence is not what most people say it is:

People get it wrong when they talk about innocence: they think it’s something to do with ignorance about the facts of sex and all the nasty things that happen in the world. But facts don’t change people: it’s understanding how the facts feel that does. Only stupid people think innocence is some weird state of not-knowing that children grow out of once they start to understand innuendo. Or maybe it’s not that they’re stupid: maybe it’s just that in some weird grown-up way they are still innocent. Because otherwise they’d know better: they’d understand, even if they couldn’t really explain it, that innocence is so much bigger. It’s every aspect of the life you have before you know how precious and wonderful it is to be ignorant. It’s all the time you spend rushing, rushing to know, never expecting to find grief waiting beside knowledge.

 

It’s weird and sad that this kid is concerned about the innocence of her parents. At 14 years old, she’s frustrated that “at their age” they can still think the way they do. They can enjoy a kind of blissful ignorance that was taken away from her long ago. It creates a terrible conflict within her. On the one hand she’s angry and hateful that they’re so innocent; she wants them to lose that innocence so they can better understand her and share her pain. It’s not fair that they don’t have to shoulder the burden of understanding. On the other hand, she loves them too much to truly want this for them. After all, they have suffered too: Amy and Paul lost their son, Ben lost his wife, and Amy and Ben lost their parents, all in one car crash. Still, that’s not the same thing as what Evie had to go through.

Reflecting on all this and other things, I was struck by how dark this novel. It’s not something you notice at first glance. After all, it’s not bleak. Evie is strong, she’s recovering, she’s got a wonderful family. The plot isn’t depressing: there are many happy moments with Evie’s friends and family, we see her work through her problems, and of course she has her magical dragon. And as I mentioned, you don’t relive the abuse with Evie. But there are grim, brutal things that very quietly crawl in under your skin. Like Amy’s slightly pathological tendency to worry about her family’s safety and the fact that you would never know she and Paul had a son because they keep every trace of him locked away in a cupboard. Or Evie’s burning anger at Sonny Rawlins (anyone who’s been bullied could empathise, but Evie has an edge that makes it just a little bit disturbing). Her hatred of her mother Fiona. Then there’s the ending, which I think would could spark and interesting discussion because that’s where the issue of the dragon’s reality becomes the most important.

I think these things creep up on you because it’s not a dramatic book. It just calmly gets on with its very serious, painful and even shocking subject matter, while making room for the positive, heartwarming stuff too. And then it stays with you for a while after you’ve finished. I like Evie more than a lot of YA characters I’ve read, even though she scares me a little. The Bone Dragon is also a more mature and emotionally complex kind of YA than the kind I normally find myself reading, and I appreciate that. Not that I necessarily prefer all my books to be grim, but it’s good to see the genre handling something with such gravity too.