Homage to Dick­ens

It’s never easy to fol­low-up an in­stant mas­ter­piece with a crowd-pleaser.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by NICK WALKER star2@thes­tar.com.my

Bell­man & Black Au­thor: Diane Set­ter­field Pub­lisher: Bond Street Books, 320 pages, fic­tion

IN the year of Bri­tish au­thor Diane Set­ter­field’s birth, 1964, The Bea­tles set the world on fire with their ap­pear­ance on Amer­ica’s The Ed Sul­li­van Show – the band go­ing su­per­nova in­ter­na­tion­ally as a re­sult of its air­ing.

Some 43 years later, Set­ter­field did some­thing sim­i­lar with her de­but novel, the glob­ally ac­claimed, best­selling The Thir­teenth Tale, though the blaze was lit by the In­ter­net rather than by yes­ter­year’s ex­cit­ing new me­dia (as TV was in the 1960s).

This book­worm has read few more pow­er­ful or en­gag­ing nov­els this cen­tury. The Thir­teenth Tale was a gothic mas­ter­piece of highly re­ward­ing com­plex­ity, with a beau­ti­fully em­broi­dered nar­ra­tive, and the power to awe.

Seven years is a long time be­tween a smash­hit de­but and its fol­low-up, but it has fi­nally ar­rived, and with in­evitably lofty ex­pec­ta­tions. Is Bell­man & Black a wor­thy suc­ces­sor? Does she still have that magic?

Un­for­tu­nately, the an­swers are: “not re­ally” and “not re­ally”. Bell­man & Black is a fairy good novel. But that’s like say­ing The Bea­tles were a fairly good band. You’re not ex­pect­ing “fairly good” with Set­ter­field. Not af­ter The Thir­teenth Tale.

Bell­man & Black is as at­mo­spher­i­cally dark and brood­ing as her de­but, but it is a less in­ter­est­ing and more straight­for­ward out­ing into the Goth-land of Set­ter­field’s imag­i­na­tion; it’s miss­ing the se­crets, twists and turns, and the bril­liant nar­ra­tive trick­ery of The Thir­teenth Tale.

Worse, the story is de­riv­a­tive and the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are weak. Read­ing Bell­man & Black re­minded me of read­ing Alex Gar­land’s un­der­whelm­ing The Tesser­act, which fol­lowed his stun­ning 1996 de­but, The Beach. In both cases, I thought: “What hap­pened to the au­thor? The flame is still there, but why is it so much dim­mer?”

Af­ter a third novel, also un­der­whelm­ing, Gar­land shifted medium and be­come a screen­play­writer of con­sid­er­able renown. What does the fu­ture hold for Set­ter­field? One hopes a re­turn to the form she un­leashed in 2006. But back to the present, and to the prod­uct in hand.

Bell­man & Black’s pro­tag­o­nist is Wil­liam Bell­man, who, as a boy of 10, made a bet with his chums that he could hit a crow with a stone from his cat­a­pult. As his mis­sile arced through the air, Bell­man re­alised in a frac­tion of a se­cond that he didn’t ac­tu­ally want to kill the crea­ture. But he won the bet – un­for­tu­nately for the crow, and, as the fol­low­ing chap­ters re­veal, un­for­tu­nately for him.

This sin­gle in­ci­dent fore­shad­ows the rest of his life – crows and rooks be­come re­oc­cur­ring and omi­nous mo­tifs through the book.

Bell­man’s adult life starts well. He mar­ries the girl of his dreams, sires a large lov­ing fam­ily, and dis­cov­ers in him­self a nat­u­ral ap­ti­tude for busi­ness.

In­deed, the Bell­man-the-busi­ness­man as­pect of the book overly dom­i­nates, thereby di­min­ish­ing its en­ter­tain­ment value. Page upon page de­liv­ers de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on re­tail trans­ac­tions, out­sourc­ing, ven­dor re­la­tion­ships, ledgers and ac­count­ing, and the fi­nan­cial ban­ter of Vic­to­rian Eng­land. But this be­ing a Gothic novel, the Grim Reaper is never far away. One by one, peo­ple around Bell­man die. And at each funeral, he is star­tled to see a stranger in black, grin­ning at him know­ingly.

The first to per­ish are rel­a­tives. Then his own chil­dren die. Then his wife. Even­tu­ally he ends up with just a sin­gle loved one, his favourite child, Dora.

As the years crawl by, Wil­liam be­comes a kind of dop­pel­gänger of Charles Dick­ens’ most fa­mous cre­ation, Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christ­mas Carol. While be­com­ing ob­sessed with work and the bot­tom-line, Bell­man re­minds us of what money can and can­not buy. Duly a moral­ity tale emerges, with a fairly sim­ple equa­tion at its core: com­pas­sion and love al­ways trump busi­ness, profit-and-loss, and fi­nan­cial gain. That’s the way the hu­man con­di­tion is.

But where A Christ­mas Carol has hu­mour, pathos and, ul­ti­mately, re­demp­tion, Bell­man & Black is much less sat­is­fy­ing.

Through her el­e­gant prose, Set­ter­field re­mains a master of mood and place, and her de­scrip­tions of Bell­man’s fac­tory and other lo­cales are his­tor­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing. One thing you can’t deny Set­ter­field: she cer­tainly does her re­search. The de­tail is so sharp, one won­ders if the au­thor is some kind of time-trav­eller.

Less com­pelling are Bell­man’s ghosts, whether “real” or of his mind. These seem to be too ephemeral to re­ally spook. More chill­ing are the crows that flit through these pages, mak­ing us won­der if the young Bell­man would have had an en­tirely dif­fer­ent life if he had missed with his cat­a­pult all those years ago.

In life as in fic­tion, one ran­dom act can change ev­ery­thing for­ever. This pow­er­ful mes­sage does add philo­soph­i­cal heft to Bell­man & Black.

The Thir­teenth Tale took Char­lotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and echoed and warped it so eerily that the au­thor earned gush­ing plau­dits for her deft in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Just as The Thir­teenth Tale was homage to Char­lotte Brontë, Bell­man & Black homages Charles Dick­ens, but less skil­fully.

It’s never easy to fol­low-up an in­stant-clas­sic mas­ter­piece with a crowd-pleaser for your global read­er­ship. Just ask Alex Gar­land.

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