Saturday, October 05, 2013

Rooks are made of thought and memory

Will Bellman seems to lead a charmed life. Despite starting out with a few marks against him, life is relatively easy (though he works hard) and good. Until...
It was a source of puzzlement to remember a time when the world had seemed an entirely benign sort of place. He had rarely been ill and never for long; he had never gone hungry; he had been met everywhere with smiles and friendship; his efforts had been rewarded, his failings largely forgiven. Though he was a boy who knew how to get into trouble he had the useful knack of being as good at getting out of it. What little there had been to frighten or pain him was left behind in the forgotten days of childhood: as a man he saw no reason to be afraid. Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.

Until people start dying around him. Years of death, and business, and the business of death, and Bellman becomes a husk of a man.
"Appetite all right? Sleep?"

It was impossible to describe accurately the horror of his nights. Bellman was loathe to admit, I am tormented by dreams. Birds tap at my window in the night with their black beaks, they are trapped inside my lungs and leave me gasping for breath, they feed on my heart, and when I shave in the morning I can see them looking out at me through my own eyes. Of course not.
Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield, traces the tragedy of the trajectory of Will Bellman's life from when he was 10 years old and shot a crow dead with his slingshot, through his success as a business man, finding love and having a family, more continued business success, and his unravelling, unto his death.

Will, you see, is haunted. Bellman & Black is plainly marked as "a ghost story" (at least on the UK edition, pictured here; my e-book gave no such indication on the cover, but the novel is qualified as such on the title page). This may set the wrong expectations for some readers. In my view, the novel needs no such help; the ghost is there from the beginning, though its nature be not clear.

Following Will are the crows, or the absence of crows, and Setterfield's rook facts are interspersed throughout the text. Also, there are the many dead. And then there's Mr. Black. One thing I particularly like about this novel is that it's not clear whether the ghost has external existence or is purely internal to Will. I expect this may bother readers who come for a real ghost, but the way I see it, this ambiguity follows in a great classic tradition (think: Turn of the Screw).

There are several reviews of this book noting disappointment that Bellman & Black does not live up to the expectations set by Setterfield's first novel. While I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, little of it has stayed with me except for the mood of it (though I'm inspired to revisit it now*). Bellman & Black on the other hand will stay with me a long time, and I have no qualms about calling it a tighter, more mature novel. I loved it. Its net effect on me is like a cross between two other stellar books I read this year: John Williams' Stoner and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.

*Since I first starting drafting this post, I have dipped into The Thirteenth Tale, and I can't get past the feeling that it's some kind of trickery, its hold on people. Sure, there's a story there somewhere, but it draws readers in by relying on their love of bookish things, old bookstores, getting lost in a book, special editions, the romance of writing, libraries. Bellman & Black seems to me purer, it's just the story of one man's life.

The standard description of this book does it a disservice, blithely summing up what amounts to nearly half of the novel in a few sentences, and implying that what follows — Will's meeting a stranger and establishing a new business — is the crux of the story. This is a gross imbalance. The second half of this story would not be worth nothing at all if the first half weren't so deeply felt and wonderfully told.

This book is about grief, and also the business of grief. I wonder if you have to have known grief to appreciate this book, the full devastation of grief, the kind where you make deals with your gods, anything, to abate it.

Or maybe you have to have known crows.
There is a story much older than this one in which two ravens — ravens being large cousins to rooks — were companions and advisers to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, the other Muninn, which meant Memory. They lived in a magic ash tree where the borders of many worlds came together, and from its branches they flew blithely between worlds, gathering information for Odin. Other creatures could not cross the borders from one world to another, but Thought and Memory flew where they pleased, and came back laughing.

Thought and Memory had a great many offspring, all of whom were gifted with great mental powers allowing them to accumulate and pass on a good deal of knowledge from their ancestors.

The rooks that lived in Will Bellman's oak tree were descendants of Thought and Memory. The rook that fell was one of their many-times-great-grandchildren.

On the day that Will Bellman was ten years and four days old these rooks did what needed to be done to mark their loss. Then they departed from that dangerous place. They never returned.

The tree still stands. Even now you can go and see it — yes, right now, in your time — but you will not see a single rook alight in its branches. They still know what happened. Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget.
Well written and subtly atmospheric. Also, I recommend this novel for its fascinating historical detail to anyone with an interest in the history of supply chain management or in the Victorian business of mourning emporiums.
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