This atmospheric novel tells the story of William Bellman, who makes one decision in childhood that will alter the entire course of his life. When he is ten years old, he and a few friends are playing in the field near their village, and they see a rook on a far-off tree branch. Will bets his friends that he can hit the bird with his slingshot, and to everyone’s astonishment, he actually does it. Will and his friends soon forget the incident, but from then on, rooks become a touchstone and a bad omen for William Bellman. As he gets older, he becomes more and more successful: first he get a job at his uncle’s mill, then rises through the ranks until he eventually runs it. He marries and has children, and he begins to make a very comfortable living. But when an illness sweeps through the village and takes most of William’s family, he will do anything to save his remaining daughter — including making a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. William’s encounter with Black leads him to an entirely different business venture, one that eventually threatens to consume him.
I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m coming away from it with mixed feelings. The writing style is just as rich and gorgeous as I remember, and I found myself reading very quickly despite the slow-moving plot. I also admire the novel’s atmosphere of suspense; it has a wonderfully autumnal, sinister quality, despite the fact that not a lot of scary stuff actually happens. In fact, that may be my biggest problem with the book: there’s this great buildup of tension throughout the novel, but in the end there’s no payoff. The interludes about rooks — and William’s encounters with them throughout the book — are meant to heighten the suspense, I think, but I didn’t really understand their role in the story. Frankly, I was a bit confused about the story as a whole; I was expecting a Faustian narrative in which William essentially sells his soul for success, but that’s not really what happens. In short, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book — but I’m definitely not giving up on Setterfield yet!