I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first novel – ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ –and when a second novel with an intriguing title appeared after a long wait, my expectations soared. Maybe they went too high because, although I found some things to love, in the end I was disappointed.
A prologue set the story up beautifully. A group of boys, out playing in the countryside. One has a catapult, he sees a bird, he takes a shot, and the bird falls. Dead. He moved on, he quickly forgot, but at that moment a shadow was cast over his life.
The senses of foreboding was there from the start, and it was reinforced the recurring images of ravens, and the occasional sighting of a shadowy figure …
The story that follows is built on classic lines. A young man, from humble beginnings, rises in the world. He applies himself, he seizes every opportunity, to achieve his ambitions. And fortune seemed to favour him; obstacles were swept from his path. But at the pinnacle of his success, tragedy strikes. He tries to rise above it. He strikes a bargain, he enters into a partnership, and he sets out on a new path. But he loses sight of what really matters, and that, eventually, causes his downfall.
It’s a fine story, and Diane Setterfield tells it well, her style matching her story quite perfectly. She paints such lovely, such well-chosen, Victorian period details. I was intrigued as I learned how mills worked, and could work; I was fascinated to watch as Bellman and Black explored and exploited the huge potential of the morning business. The atmosphere was wonderful, and so was that feeling of foreboding that never quite went away.
The themes – the growth of industrialisation and the fashion for mourning – are utterly right for the period, and they fit the story beautifully.
But it’s such a pity that the plot is stretched and repetitive, that so many characters and relationships are under-developed, and that many interesting ideas, to one side of the main storyline, were left unexplored. It was maddening because the story, the settings, the descriptions were so vivid, but the understanding, the insight into the people that populated the story was missing. I wanted to care, I wanted to know, I wanted to be drawn in. But I couldn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t.
That might not have mattered if it had worked well as a ghost story, but it didn’t. The raven sequences felt clunky, and the other elements seemed under-developed.
I was captivated by ‘Bellman and Black’ as I read; I saw failings, but there was plenty to hold my interest. It when the story was done I was horribly aware that things had been missing. This might have been an short story, it might have been opened out into a novel with a broader scope. But as it stands, I’m sad to say that it isn’t quite right.