Bellman & Black
by Diane Setterfield
Original Publication Date: November 5, 2013
Obtained Via: I received an electronic advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This influenced my final opinion of the book in no way.
Format Read In: E-ARC
Purchase on Amazon: Bellman & Black: A Novel
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Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who “could go to the good or the bad.” And indeed, although William Bellman’s life at first seems blessed—he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business—one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave—and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William—a mysterious business called “Bellman & Black” . .
I really loved Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I was eager and excited to get an electronic advanced reader’s copy of Bellman & Black. Here’s what I found: While Setterfield’s writing remains as impressive as it was the first go-around, the story told in Bellman & Black is inherently less fascinating, at least to me and most likely to many other readers.
That’s because for the majority of the book, Bellman & Black is the story of Bellman rising through the ranks of merchants. He starts as an assistant to the manager on his uncle’s textile mill, and shows how hardworking he is and eventually runs the black. Then he opens up his own business–Bellman & Black. At least seventy percent of the story is dedicated to Bellman’s day-to-day life and running of the companies, and I’m not sure about other readers, but I just couldn’t summon the energy to be interested in the inner workings of a textile mill and how they evaluated the quality of dye on fabric.
Despite this, I did for the most part moderately enjoy my reading of Bellman & Black. This is partially because of Setterfield’s beautiful writing, and partially because the parts of the book that do not follow Bellman at work–when he’s with his family, mourning his children, or holding conversations with others–are gripping. I almost put this book to the side several times but these scenes saved the book for me.
Furthermore, the exploration of themes in Bellman & Black is well-done. I loved seeing how Bellman’s small actions contributed to larger parts of his life down the road. It’s a message we’ve all heard before, I’m sure, but it never comes across as preachy in the book. From the opening scene, the story of Bellman’s life is built brick by brick–or rook by rook, I should say, since the rook motif is strong in this book.
I did like the inclusion of rooks and birds, and it was clear Setterfield had done her research, but by the middle it did seem a bit over-the-top. Or maybe over-the-top isn’t the right phrase–it just felt forced. I only need to know the different names for a group of rooks so many times before the novelty wears off. That being said, those little injections do lead to a nicely worded ending, so perhaps some of that can be forgiven.
On the whole, I probably wouldn’t recommend Bellman & Black to most of the readers I know, even though I did personally enjoy this one all right. It doesn’t stand up to Setterfield’s first work, in my opinion, but she is a gifted writer and the things I liked in this book did outweigh the things I didn’t, even if not by very much. Bellman & Black definitely has a slow pace, though, so it’s something I would just say be mindful of if you’re thinking of picking this one up.
Bellman & Black was a decent and enjoyable read, but it was hard not to compare it to Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, which I found much more appealing. This book had its strengths and I love Setterfield’s writing, but it’s not a book I’d recommend to most readers because of the slow-moving pace and the boring descriptions of some of Bellman’s day-to-day life. 3/5 cupcakes.