As I’ve almost certainly mentioned before, my favorite living author is the great Ian McEwan. I’ve got other living favorites, too, such as Tony Earley, Jeffrey Eugenides, Geraldine Brooks, and Wendell Berry. I also have a list of dead favorites. It’s grown longer through the years with the deaths of Jon Hassler, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Christopher Hitchens, four of the greatest writers who ever lived.
Today is a special day for me as a reader. I am adding a new favorite living author to my list—Diane Setterfield. Since she only has 2 published novels at this time (the first of which was The Thirteenth Tale), I would normally consider it too early for such an announcement, but her second book, Bellman and Black, is so perfect thus far (I’m halfway through it), that I already know I’m in the sort of capable, safe hands that I’m in when I sit down with an Ian McEwan book. I can sit back, relax, learn, and be entertained. I don’t have to worry about the author petering out halfway through the book and dreading my own self-imposed mental drudgery that urges, “well, I’ve come this far, I might as well finish it.”
Take, for instance, the brilliant opening of Bellman & Black:
I have heard it said, by those that cannot possibly know, that in the final moments of a man’s existence he sees his whole life pass before his eyes. If that were so, a cynic might assume William Bellman’s last moments to have been spent contemplating anew the lengthy series of calculations, contracts, and business deals that made up his existence. In fact, as he approached the border with that other place—border toward which we will all find our path turning sooner or later—his thoughts were drawn to those who had already crossed into that unknown territory: his wife, three of his children, his uncle, cousin, and some childhood friends. Having remembered these lost, dear ones and being still some moments from death, there was a time for one last act of remembrance. What he unearthed, after it had lain buried some forty years in the archaeology of his mind, was a rook.
(It’s a perfect paragraph! Good thing I didn’t read this one morning before going to work; I would have had to call in sick for the day to read.)
Here’s another lovely little passage, which describes our protagonist’s view upon discovering his uncle Paul dead, but still sitting upright at his desk, as if at work:
Paul’s back was very still. William could see it now, something unnatural in the sit of him. He was not held upright from the inside, by his own power. Gravity’s own hold on him was delicately poised, and death had come so gently to him that he had not slumped forward or back or to the left or right, but downward only. A mere hand on that shoulder would be enough to destroy the balance and he would topple . . .
What a description! And even more majestic is the originality of thought and Setterfield’s masterful method of drawing in the cynical reader who is hard to please. She doesn’t use a vocabulary like McEwan’s, but she doesn’t intend to, and she holds onto some irresistible little mysteries that I can’t quite identify, but which I know are lurking around the edges of the page. (Can you feel that delightful chill?)
Here’s another reason to be glad to be only 44 years old. If I’m lucky, I can stick around for awhile to read some more novels by Diane Setterfield.