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Book Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

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“You will have seen rooks.”

Warning: //spoilers//

In the follow-up to her smashing debut novel The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield starts out Bellman & Black with a quote by Mark Cocker in Crow Country:

“You will have seen rooks.
 Don’t be put off by any sense of familiarity.
 Rooks are enveloped in a glorious sky-cloak of mystery.
 They’re not what you think they are.”

This is Dr. Setterfield’s hint to us, the readers, that her 2nd novel is not what we, at first impression, think it is.

picture of a black bird squawkingReviewers have been indeed put off by a sense of familiarity with the book’s themes of death and grief. So enamored are readers by William’s killing of the rook and Bellman’s elaborate theater of grief that they miss Setterfield’s point entirely.

Despite missing the point, some readers still manage to love the book. Setterfield’s deft turn of phrase, her grasp of the historical milieu, her haunting rook observations, are enchanting in themselves. Although some reviewers do get close to understanding the mind of the rook, most are too mercifully lost in the details of William’s story to personally experience the extreme level of creepiness Setterfield delivers.

Yes, I said mercifully lost. A reader enthralled by the surface of this story doesn’t feel her own rooks right behind her.

Here’s the point everyone seems to be missing: Bellman & Black is not about death. It isn’t about grief. It’s about guilt. It’s about the guilt we all have. It’s about the regret that destroys us, and how we humans, in what looks like folly to Thought & Memory, attempt to press our guilt and regret away, as if we can iron wrinkles out of the fabric of time.

Let me explain.

The Fault Line

William’s story doesn’t begin with his catapult killing the rook. William’s story begins, with barely a side mention, with his birth.

Phillip, William’s father, left William and his mother Dora soon after William was born. William grew up believing he was somehow to blame for his father’s abandonment. The kid logic follows, right? His parents were together before his birth. His parents weren’t together after his birth. The only element that seemed to change was William’s existence. By the time he was 10-years-old, with no father to teach him the legend of rooks (as a father of those days did when constructing their son’s slingshot), William was well into the task of burying this core feeling of guilt.

When the stone was in the air, William thought of startling the bird with a shout, but he stayed silent and the rook fell. William then felt a sudden pang of the grave and all-encompassing guilt he had left over from Phillip’s abandonment. Setterfield, like all excellent literary authors, doesn’t spell this out for us but the meaning is clear in her text :

(William’s feelings, after the rook fell):

“He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.”

William is adopting the unfair, unfounded guilt over his father’s abandonment and turning it into something he deserves for killing the rook. William basically feels and has always felt unworthy. The horrible feeling that roots in his chest matches the “sentiment” of guilt that was thrust upon him, so he accepts the rooting of it within his being. It now defines him. Setterfield goes on, sharply displaying William’s fall from grace (my emphasis in bold):

“They told and retold the story, acted it out for each other. With imaginary catapults they killed whole parishes of imaginary rooks.

Will stood by. Like any ten-year-old hero, he took more than his fair share of teasing and shoving. He smiled, sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty. He grinned and shoved back without conviction.”

“The next day, William woke with a fever. For a half a week he stayed in bed being tended to by his mother. During this time, while his blood grew warmer and warmer and he sweated and cried out in pain, William applied his ten-year-old genius and power to the greatest feat he had ever attempted: forgetting.

He very largely succeeded.”

 

The Fall

And like one bird joining another, then another, and another until a flock casts a shadow any cloud would envy, William suppresses pain after pain after pain. He does not process Jeannie Armstrong’s preference for Fred over him. He does not face the grief of his mother’s death, or his uncle’s. He does not take the opportunity to trace his father’s whereabouts and/or deal with the guilt from the abandonment which made him feel so worthless. By the time William’s wife and three children are taken from him, the process is permanent. He had, by that time, convinced himself the rook was there to make him a deal for his daughter life. The rook, the representation of the purpose of thought and memory, of course, had a different intent.

William continues to repress the “sentiment.” He denies himself comforts. He practically bends time in order to stuff it full with more distraction. He builds a shining, awesome monument to grief, yet ironically never experiences any grief himself. As soon as any thought of human connection comes in – nuzzling Lizzie’s neck, visiting Fred in his last days – Bellman pushes it away and smothers it in work. He mustn’t think. He mustn’t remember.

In contrast his daughter Dora (named for her grandmother) spends her time thinking and remembering. She constructs her past in her mind; she experiences memories like scenes again and again. She keeps her family alive in her heart. And she doesn’t fear the birds like Bellman. She invites the rooks back. She draws them. She watches with them, the looks at her father with pity as he from Thought & Memory, and eventually from her.

The rook appears one last time to Bellman, and as is the case with sentiments we try to repress, all come back to haunt him in a maddening and deadly flood. The rook looks on with pity as Bellman flings gold at him. The rook insists:

“Remember.”

The “sentiment” finally overtakes William Bellman. He loses himself to it and he dies how he lived: “sick-at-heart, proud, abashed, guilty.”

The rook ends the tale by showing us the parish of rooks’ telling of William’s story across the evening sky for Dora, Mary and others, including Dora’s adopted boys (Mary’s orphaned nephews). In this final narrative, the rook tells us that one of his own will come for all of us, close the book on our story, and a parish of rooks will dance a retelling of that story across the early evening sky.

black bird in flightOur rooks

So, you may ask, what does this all mean?

Good question. Bellman & Black isn’t an easily understood book. Why? Because we are all Bellman.

And in this case, Setterfield plays the rook. This talented, haunted, sincere author is holding a mirror up to us. As we fill our time with distractions (most notably lately with the Internet), the thoughts and memories that we should be constructing are disappearing into the dark clouds of the ether.

Memento Mori, meaning “Remember Death,” is a legendary sentiment among writers. Memento Mori is to writers what #YOLO (You Only Live Once) is to the cynical youth set: a reminder, to free yourself and your voice, to dare to speak or write, to not be afraid of the pain that may come from doing so. One day (perhaps soon) the opportunity will be taken and a fate worse than death will fall upon you: you may be forgotten. Suck the marrow from life’s bones now. Write now. Make haste, and don’t waste. Setterfield’s rook holds the same message.

&

“There are numerous collective nouns for rooks.” In some parts, people should say a regret of rooks.

 

I am a familiar enough creature until you actually look at me.
My appearance, my education, my career, and my relationships have had their beautiful, shimmering moments, but while my life seems bright, colorful, perhaps even pre-ordained, throughout there lies a deep river of pain. I’m no different in that sense, I’ve come to find. Most humans have a “superabundance of blackness” underneath.

So where, or more importantly how, did I manage to build a life that almost magically hides that rudimentary void dug out by the tragic events of my youth (self-absorbed and absent parents, neglect, abuse, isolation, depression)? After finally escaping from the house and small town in which I was raised, I had access to answers.

Enter Psychology, the “magic of the real.” With a vengeful hunger that could not and cannot to this day be sated, I pursued the mysteries of human behavior in Psychology’s theories and practices. With every convenient explanation I discovered for my parents’ neglect, with every justification I gave for my parents’ denial of the physical and sexual abuse that others perpetrated upon me, with every systems analysis I constructed for the hypocrisy and unreliability of the other adults around me, I took a step closer to muffling my own voice. Understanding the damaging actions of others, I thought, neutralized my reason to mourn. I pushed away the pain. In a complete absorption of the message I received from my parents, brothers and society, I silenced myself. I never examined the real effects of this until I read this book.

Here’s the problem with writers: we cannot and we are not supposed to be silent. We are artists. Our job, nay our vocation, is to speak life’s truths. If we censor any thoughts or delude ourselves away from any memories (however unrelated they seem), we cannot write anything of worth. We are blocked. We have tricks, of course, flamboyant ways to force our fingers to type staid technical manuals or petty press releases. We can pass a whole life tapping away, in “common fields, grubbing for larvae.” Many of us do.

Like the Dickens spirits, Setterfield’s rook has reflected a fate that awaits me. I could spend my life like Bellman, silencing myself, barely noticing that I’m avoiding tremendous pain and undeserved distress, and never reaching that other side, the promised land of human connection, a fierce life spent capturing it, striving to “split it, absorb some, and radiate the rest, in a delightful demonstration” of courage, showing you –and myself– the truth that your “own poor eyes cannot see.” Others’ protests to my portrayal have no bearing on my right to portray it. They have their opinions; am I not entitled to my own? Must I silence myself so their illusion remains in tact?

The answer is that I have a right to live how I wish. When I want to speak my truth, I will seek out “the drunken poet or the wild-eyed crone” and we’ll commiserate. Together we’ll spite the “damsel with her coronet,” sample dragon liver and griffin flesh, and chase a unicorn posse across digital fields.

 

“There are numerous collective nouns for rooks.” Sometimes, I call them a blessing of rooks.

 

 

Bird Photo Credits: User Nottsexminer on Flickr  and John Haslam on Flickr

 

Here is a video of the rooks’ dancing: http://vimeo.com/31158841

 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Carine Chichereau 23 April 2014, 7:07 am

    Dear Christine Cavalier, I’m the french translator of Bellman & Black. I’ve read numerous critics about the book, but none of them has grasped the meaning of it all as you did. Thanks for your deep analyse, it helped me see things I had missed, and it helped me realize there was much more to it than I thought. Your analyse should be sold with the book! I’ve sent it to the French publisher, hoping it will help them understand how great it is. So thank you so much!
    Carine

    • PurpleCar 23 May 2014, 1:38 pm

      Carine, I’m very sorry. I did not see your comment until now. Thank you so much! I am very happy to hear that my analysis helped you. It was very kind of you to say so.

  • Kathleen 3 February 2015, 9:20 am

    Thank you so much for your analysis. I finished the book last night and was troubled because I knew I did not grasp the full meaning. But now I feel through your analysis that I understand. Thanks again. Incredible job.

    • Christine Cavalier 3 February 2015, 2:40 pm

      Kathleen, thank you for taking the time to tell me this! It was a very difficult book, but I have to say, I really liked it. I love Diane Setterfield’s writing and I hope she continues. -C

  • Shirley 23 February 2015, 8:06 pm

    Thanks for the review. I completed the book yesterday and i was like “huh? that’s it?” Seems like i didn’t completely grasp the full meaning of the story and I’m glad to read your review. I have two questions though:
    1) Why do you say that Mr Black was a rook?
    2) What was the offer that Mr Black was extending to Bellman over and over again? An offer to die or an offer to grief or an offer to remember?

    • Christine Cavalier 23 February 2015, 9:03 pm

      Mr. Black was probably all in Bellman’s imagination. There were a few scenes in the book where Bellman had the impression that he was dealing with Mr. Black, and in those scenes (or close by) was a rook. Also, the rook represents Thought and Memory. Bellman didn’t want memories, they were too painful. He didn’t want thoughts, either.

      By being instilled with such guilt at an early age, Bellman was unable to face the abandonment of his father, and later of his wife and children. The pain he felt was too great. Mr. Black gave him an idea, a terrible, awful, perfect idea. A way out of memory and thought: make a huge, booming business. A distraction. A new identity. An Escape. And Bellman was grateful for it.

      Does this help at all?

      • Shirley 25 February 2015, 9:18 pm

        Thanks alot for your reply.

        Bellman was preparing a huge sum of money to pay Black. When they eventually met at the end of the book, Black told him he didnt want his money, it was not his intention to give him the idea for the mourning goods business. Instead, Bellman had missed the point. Black had offered him “something” at each of the funerals, and he offered it to Bellman one last time “before it was too late”. Was that “something” a chance to die or an option to grieve or an option to remember?

        • Christine Cavalier 25 February 2015, 10:56 pm

          Yes, you got it! Black offered Bellman an option to grieve and in so grieving, being able to remember his wife and children fondly and have their memories enrich Bellman’s life.

          When Bellman was meeting with Black, he was really meeting with the Rook or Rooks who were Thought and Memory (also called Black). Black was offering Bellman a chance to get on with grieving, come out the other side, and perhaps live a full life, not the silly life of folly Bellman was living. Bellman kept offering Black money but money is of no importance to Black. Black thinks Bellman is a tragic tale, a human who tried desperately to be without Thought or Memory. Black was trying to get Bellman to face life, so Bellman’s guilt, grief and pain could fly away from the fields of his heart, taking (most of) the darkness with them. Bellman could have been happy. Instead he chose not only the darkness, but in a grim twist of irony, he builds an awful, towering monument to it.

          I would guess some may say the Rook (Black) was the Grim Reaper, coming with warnings of woe and rue. Regrets of the dead are vicious, as the story goes (or as Jacob Marley tells us in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). In modern language, we can imagine Black is shouting, “WAKE UP, BELLMAN! YOLO, AND YOU’RE WASTING IT. YOU’LL BE SORRY IF YOU DIE LIKE THIS.”

          In our historical stories of men meeting the Grim Reaper, so many rich men offer Grim money. These rich men stand, disbelieving, that Grim is there to ferry them across to the other side, and they can’t let go of the notion that “every man has his price.” Rich men never seem to believe they themselves have a price, or that they themselves will go to a place where money is irrelevant and only the good deeds on one’s soul will accompany them. In the bible, Matthew 24, Jesus told his disciples “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

          Perhaps Setterfield is trying to tell us to seize the day. Setterfield is a teacher, after all, and I think she wants us to learn from Bellman, from Ebenezer, from Black, et.al., that love, honor, trust, humility, and grace are the true human currencies, and the only things worth pursuing.

          • Shirley 4 March 2015, 4:08 am

            Thanks for explaining this so patiently to me! I finally get it! 🙂

            • Christine Cavalier 6 March 2015, 12:10 pm

              You are very welcome! I’m so grateful for your gift of the chance to help. -Christine

  • Mark 6 March 2015, 10:20 am

    Hi Christine,

    Thanks for the effort you have put into helping translate the meaning of the story.

    Spoiler alert (for others who haven’t read the book yet)

    What did you make of the repeating of the memory where Bellman’s daughter sits on his lap and gravely closes his eye lids?

    Was it just a useful repeat to show this is his point of death and that he missed everything his daughter had to offer him in life? Or am I missing something more poignant?

    It was intensely sad reading that bit at the end.

    Thanks,
    Mark.

    • Christine Cavalier 6 March 2015, 12:04 pm

      Hi Mark! Your interpretation is totally plausible. Bellman’s daughter Dora could indeed be telling him many different things about Memory and Thought with that gesture, and Setterfield could be hinting at similar messages by having Bellman repeat the memory in his head. Which messages, exactly? I don’t know; That’s the beauty of fiction. It says different things to different people.

      To gauge by the overall Dickensian references, the ghost/haunting themes, etc., I’d say Dora was trying to get Bellman to remember, to heal, just like Black was. Dora could be seen as Black in a living, breathing form. Dora always liked the rooks. She made friend in one (maybe Black?) and was eerily able to draw them accurately at a young age. Also, it was fitting that she sat with her adopted sons to watch her father’s story spelled out by the rooks’ dance. The rooks healed and comforted Dora. She was not afraid of thought and memory. She did not want Bellman to be, either. When one closes the eyes, one looks internally. What one finds there shouldn’t be a nightmare. Bellman was unable, for whatever reason (I think it was his inherent guilt), to look past the nightmare, even though he knew Dora was begging him to.

      And yes, the end bit was intensely sad, as you say. It was a truly chilling tale. And a frightening warning.

      Thank you! So happy to meet others who “get” this book.

      -Christine

  • Gina 25 March 2015, 9:55 pm

    Wow! I knew this story had a deeper meaning. I totally missed it all. I really didn’t like this story because for me it seemed like Bellman was being punished for killing the rook. I felt the punishment WAY too harsh for the crime. After reading your review, I almost want to go back and read the entire story all over again. Boy did I miss the mark on this one! I read this one only on the surface and didn’t dive deep enough to see the beautiful meaning underneath!

    • Christine Cavalier 26 March 2015, 8:28 am

      Gina,

      Thanks so much! This means a lot coming from you – the book reviews on your blog are so great! Love the character profiles you do. (btw I also read Cinder – haven’t gotten to Scarlet yet.)

      It’s super easy to miss the deeper meaning of this book. Setterfield doesn’t spell it out, that’s for sure. But if you go back to it, knowing that she is referencing Dickens and his parables, then you might enjoy it more. Maybe save it for Halloween season to add that extra spooky ummph. Bellman & Black can also come in handy for those times when we are avoiding feelings of regret or loss. It’s a great warning of what horrible fate awaits us if we keep trying to escape pain (i.e., no joy comes if we don’t process the pain that blocks its way).

      Thanks again for commenting. As a blogger you know how we appreciate the feedback. 🙂

      -C

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