January 2019 UPDATE: Since writing this review, I’ve learned a bit about the difference between guilt and shame. If I could write it again, I’d make that distinction more clear. For example, I would add that Bellman felt shame as a child for his situation (which was out of his control) and later he felt guilt, for his actions or the lack of them. For more about shame, seek out expert Brené Brown.
“You will have seen rooks.”
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.
Reviewers 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.”
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:
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.
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