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The challenges of comparison with your own better self

Bellman & BlackIn 2006 first time author Diane Setterfield wrote a magnificent, layered, textured, playful literary mystery, which was pretty well universally praised by professional critics, loved by readers, eagerly taken up by book clubs and also sold in vast numbers.

There was then a 7 year silence from Setterfield, with eager readers wondering when, when and – of rather more import, could she possibly equal that radiant first book?

So I was delighted to be offered Setterfield’s eagerly awaited second book as an ARC.

I’m sorry to say that I read it with enjoyment for a well-crafted story, but with a heavy heart as a book by Setterfield, who had led me to expect rather more  than what I got – a perfectly good read, but ultimately not an incandescent, memorable one

In essence what she has written here, is a good old fashioned narrative about a successful entrepreneur – with a twist, or a hook, of dark psychology and a bit of the mysterious supernatural. It has been sold, or publicised as a ghost story. What it really is, I think, is a novel set in the world of nineteenth century work – but from the master, rather than the worker’s perspective – with a twist of an unusual philosophical or metaphysical kind

The writer she most reminds me of, here, is Arnold Bennett who was bedded into the Five Towns – the potteries. Reading Bennett one really understood the concerns of Victorian England, and its entrepreneurs.

William Bellman becomes involved in the woollen industry, in the Cotswolds. Setterfield is quite a physical writer, and the reader learns a lot about that workplace. Later, Bellman moves into a particular area of retail, and it’s a bit like a different version of ‘Selfridges’ – watching a driven, charismatic man create a new kind of store through his vision.

Floris Verster: Two dead rooks, 1926

                    Floris Verster: Two dead rooks, 1926

And running through this, lest we forget, is the dark history of a childhood act of thoughtless wrong-doing, which provides the metaphysical embellishment

The book is well crafted, interesting, and no doubt had it been a first time book from a writer I would have been satisfied by an enjoyable read, a perfectly well cooked meat and two vegetables meal which fed me, left me comfortable and replete – but not a meal to remember fondly and still be talking about 7 years later as one of my most memorable and enjoyable literary repasts

It’s a good (but not a great) book from another writer – a good read, certainly. But its disappointing from Setterfield. If someone said to me ‘would you recommend this book’ – the answer would probably be ‘yes – but not if you have read The Thirteenth Tale and therefore have certain expectations’

Though the inevitable ending, and its coda, are satisfying and beautiful, I felt the journey itself bore the weight of this obvious and inevitable ending for too long. This might have worked better as a novella, or even a long short story. With a fairly small cast of individuated characters, there was not enough interest to sustain this reader, as, in effect, new incidents were repetitions of prior ones, and the same ‘lessons’ were being repeated too often

It seems hugely unfair that the ‘reward’ for raising a bar very high with a first book, is setterfieldDiane_0to be damned with faint praise for a second. Particularly when that second is well crafted, a good piece of work – but is not the expected, original, creative piece of brilliance.Review of an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley

Bellman & Black Amazon UK
Bellman & Black Amazon USA