Title: Bellman and Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Opening lines: “…I have heard it said, by those who cannot possibly know, that in the final moments of a man’s existence he sees his whole life pass before his eyes… ‘
Synopsis: As a boy, when out with his friends, William Bellman kills a rook with his catapult. He didn’t think he would actually hit the bird as it was so far away. Although he is saddened at the time the event is soon forgotten and he continues on with his life – building up a successful career at the family mill. In time he has a wife he adores and lovely children of his own, life is good. It gradually occurs to William that at the funerals he attends among the mourners there is always the same man in black, the man just stands there looking, but when William asks no one else seems to have seen the man – even his wife comments that there were many men dressed in black – black is what one wears at funerals! Life is on the up for William – the mill is doing well, he is full of ideas for improving it, and he is very wealthy. But despite his wealth William can’t save his wife and youngest children when they fall ill and very quickly die. With just his oldest daughter left, and she is at death’s door with the same illness, William attends his wife’s funeral and finally gets to speak to the mystery man in black – who says his name is Black when pressed for a name. After the meeting William can’t actually recall the conversation however he believes that in exchange for his daughter’s life he has entered into a bargain to build up a joint business that deals with everything needed for funerals, an emporium of death – Bellman & Black – but who is Black?
My Thoughts: BELLMAN AND BLACK is beautifully written, it is moody, ominous and atmospheric with an overlying promise of impending doom. A promise that slowly, very slowly gradually built up until it got to the inevitable climax. But once it arrived it, oh I don’t know – it is hard to explain – but it just didn’t meet the mark – although I am not sure what the mark was, the promise fell short of expectation. I ended up with the general sense that I had missed something important. Maybe that is exactly what author Diane Setterfield wanted but I would have preferred a tidier ending, some meaning to the various back stories. It certainly portrayed a man who reached the top and then descended into a self-absorbed hell that he didn’t even realise he was in. The ever present rooks – and the little tales of their history and myth – added another element to the story. I like rooks, and after reading BELLMAN AND BLACK I am glad I do – wouldn’t want to cross one! And then there was Dora, not sure what I can say about her, but not one hundred percent certain of her role unless it is to demonstrate that you shouldn’t bargain with people’s lives as it may not work out how you expect. Finally girl number 9 – just what was that all about?
BELLMAN AND BLACK is marketed as a ghost story. My definition of a ghost story is a story about a ghost or ghosts that is intended to frighten people. There was no ghost anywhere in this book, not one, so no, it is not a ghost story then! So what genre is BELLMAN AND BLACK if it is not a ghost story? It is undoubtedly historical, but the rest of it certainly has a lot of the elements of being Gothic fiction. Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, spooky houses, castles, darkness, death, decay of human buildings, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses. So looking at the elements of this definition the rook portion is retellings of the various folk laws regarding the secret lives of rooks – so secrets. Then there is madness, darkness, a huge focus on death and decay, rounded off with a curse. Yep BELLMAN AND BLACK is gothic not ghostly – memory and thoughts are not ghosts. The story follows William’s business skills and how he builds up Bellman & Black to be a business so much bigger than his investors hoped for. The story also describes how William becomes consumed by his work – consumed to the point of nothing else mattering. Every so often he remembers the man in black and gets a sense of one day there will be a debt to pay – only why he needs to be paying a debt alludes him at all times.
BELLMAN AND BLACK needs to be read on a wild and woolly wet day with a mug of hot chocolate and lamplight. If you like ambiguous endings that leave you thinking then this book is perfect for you. Dianne Setterfield is an amazing writer her descriptive sentences are so evocative of the scene that the sometimes take your breath away. I think this will be a book you either love or hate and can see many enjoyable sessions across the world as book clubs discuss the themes of fate, memory and thoughts.
Rating: C – Above average. Was very readable and I really liked it but was easily able to put it down and walk away for a while.
For more about the author – Click Here
With thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books and the author via Netgalley.