On a day like any other, young William Bellman boasts that he can hit a rook sitting on a branch a great distance away. His friends aren’t so sure that he can. Determined to prove them wrong, William loosens a stone from his catapult. It finds it mark. The young rook resting on the branch is killed instantly. Though William feels sad at the time, the event is soon forgotten.
The rook is comfortable pretty much anywhere. He goes where he pleases and, when he pleases, he comes back. Laughing…There are numerous collective nouns for rooks. In some parts people say a parliament of rooks.
Life goes on. William grows up into a fine young man. He leads a charmed life – he has a job he loves at his uncle’s mill, a wife and children he adores, his business is thriving and everything he touches turns to gold. But slowly, people around him start to die. And at each funeral he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling nonchalantly at him. Soon, death comes closer to home, claiming his wife and most of his children. Driven to despair, unhinged by grief, William is determined to end his own misery.
Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.
He stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave, but there, waiting for him, is the mysterious stranger in black, who has a business proposition for him – a mysterious business called Bellman & Black.
As William goes about single-mindedly setting the business up from scratch, he can’t seem to remember the actual deal that he struck with Black. That’s a niggling worry that stays with him, one he cannot fully resolve because the mysterious Black doesn’t show himself again. Who is Black? What is the nature of the agreement they entered into? How much of the profit from this business should he set aside for Black? These are the questions that torment William – questions to which he has no answer until the very end.
Overall, I thought it was an interesting book, but it had its problems.
On the plus side, it is a very well-written book. Setterfield vividly brings Victorian England and the rural country side alive with her prose. Her attention to detail, especially in the running of the mill, is par excellence – though at times it does feel slightly academic and slows the story down somewhat.
The two main protagonists – William and the rook – are dealt with beautifully. William’s character isn’t likable, but he is admirable for his single-minded devotion to his work, his business acumen and his attention to each and every detail that goes into the running of his businesses. Setterfield also includes some interesting mythologies and observations about rooks, and offers readers a whole bunch of superstitions and stories about them through the ages.
Some of the prose is hauntingly beautiful, like this passage that deals with the loss of William’s mother:
His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her teacups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.
And, since this is, after all, a ghost story, there’s an air of menace and tension throughout the book. But it isn’t your regular ghost story, because there isn’t really a “haunting”, not in the traditional manner. The haunting is in the message, in the issues that Setterfield tackles – the meaning of life and death, of what’s important and what isn’t, of dealing with love, with loss, with work, with rest. There’s a lot to think about here.
But William resisted solitude as he resisted leisure. On the surface he was all ebullience and activity. Inside, hidden even from himself, he proceeded through life as though he had learned the ground beneath his feet was minced and at any step his footing might give way beneath him.
The biggest problem with the book, though, is that it drags, and it’s a tad boring. All that observation to detail in the day-to-day running of the mill tends to get quite academic; Black doesn’t properly enter the scene until the second part of the story; the key events described in the blurb – the bargain with Black and the creation of Bellman & Black – take place only in the second half of the book, and even then, there isn’t much action. Setterfiled does build up some promising scenarios, when she could have taken the story forward dramatically, but they all just fizzle off.
This is a novel that would probably have done much better as a short story or novella. Overall, it isn’t a terrible book – indeed, it has its moments – but I wouldn’t recommend it to lovers of ghost stories or gothic fiction. Fans of literary fiction could give it a try.