When a writer publishes an amazing debut novel, the pressure is instantly on when it comes to writing a second novel. Many writers have proven successful with the following novels such as Neil Gaiman’s career taking off after his first successful novel Neverwhere. Or Markus Zusak and his debut adult novel The Book Thief which has recently been turned into a film. However, there are some writers whose second novels are not quite up to par with their first. Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale was well received by readers and has many wonderful reviews on the web; yet, her recent novel Bellman & Black unfortunately did not receive the same praise.
The story focuses on a man named William Bellman. As a child, he kills a rook by accident and it seems like a horrible, yet harmless act on a child’s part, right? However, rooks are very smart birds and do not forget incidences like these as easily as people do. Further down the road as William enters into adulthood, he inherits a mill, starts a family, and seems to be living a life many men would long to have. But the appearance of a mysterious man dressed all in black changes his life and William must face the roller coaster ride that is waiting in his future as soon as he makes a contract with this stranger.
Seems like an intriguing story: almost as if a normal man has to make a deal with a demon in order to turn his life around. However, this is not the story a reader receives. The story focuses more on the Bellman of the title and gives hardly any details of the Black. There are just many little happenings scattered throughout the story that seem random or out of place.
Let us begin with the telling of the story. Setterfield basically goes through William’s entire life, but at a very rapid and cluttered pace. One paragraph he will be 20 years old and the next paragraph will express that two years have gone by. How? There is no break between paragraphs, no ending a chapter at one year and then picking up on another year in the next chapter, the passage of time just happens. Perhaps Setterfield meant for the passage of William’s life to be quick and she even has a part of the story where William takes a moment to breathe from his crazy life and realizes that ten years have gone by. This is fascinating because it is the truth all human beings face: everyone, no matter whom, will sit down at some point in his or her life and wonder how he or she got there. This really could have worked if Setterfield had found a better way at executing the writing.
Another troublesome detail about Bellman & Black is that there are too many unnecessary details within the story. With everything that could have been taken out of the book, this actually would have probably been better as a short story. If it had begun at the point where William builds Bellman & Black and then had the story go through all of the high times and tragedies of William’s life through flashbacks or through word of mouth by other characters, that may have peaked readers’ interests. Instead, the reader is taken on a long journey where William climbs to the greatest point in his life and then descends quickly down a long slop into a pit of despair, sending the readers’ spirits into despair along with his. Not to mention, Setterfield could have replaced some of the more random, unnecessary parts and added more of Black’s character into the story. It is understandable that Black is supposed to be mysterious, but his physical character is only in the story for maybe ten pages altogether out of 320 something pages. He is a very fascinating character when a reader is finally able to see him and it would have been nice to read more about him.
Of all the details in the book, two items stuck out like sore thumbs: rooks and William’s calfskin notebook. Rooks are the obvious focal point of the story and play a large role in William’s life; however, it is both interesting and strange how Setterfield incorporated the rook into her story. It is interesting due to the fact that rooks are in a family along with the crow and the raven, which are both used fairly often in works of literature. All three of these birds symbolize death and intelligence and glimpses into the future, but Setterfield takes the time to write a couple pages after every so many chapters to write about rooks and the lives they lead, making them almost sound like people. It is difficult to explain how one feels after reading these blurbs: strange? Possibly creeped out? Then there is the less obvious detail that sticks out (perhaps even only noticeable by the anal reader): William’s notebook. This notebook he takes up writing in when his first child is born and he carries it with him for the next twenty something years. The crazy thing about this notebook is… it NEVER runs out of paper. Setterfield mentions that he writes in it all the time and tears multiple pages out, yet he still continues to write in the same one. How? Does he write very small? Does his notebook have 5,000 pages to it of very thin paper? Setterfield never says anything about him getting a new book or filling up his old book with new pages. The calfskin notebook is a mystery…
Perhaps this is only a temporary setback. Writers always have ideas and, until they get those ideas down on paper and publish them for the world to read, they will never know if the world will like these stories or not. Setterfield had an intriguing idea and could have gone many ways with it to make it more interesting to the readers, but it unfortunately fell flat. However, she did what many people do not do: she wrote her idea down and let readers experience her story for themselves. She did what many people only dream of doing (getting their stories published) and hopefully, putting Bellman & Black aside, she will be able to conjure up another tale that is just as well received as her debut novel.