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Synopsis: 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" . .
Imagine for a moment that a childhood incident defines rest of your life. How would you react? Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black is an eerie, macabre tale that will leave you looking at life and death a little differently.
As children, we’ve all done stupid things and ten year old William Bellman is no different. Hanging out with friends, they see a rook and dare him to use a slingshot on it. Thinking he’ll miss, he’s surprised when doesn’t, and the outcome weighs heavily on him. He suppresses the memory and grows up to become a successful entrepreneur. Several years later, an illness sweeps through the town and everyone begins to die. Desperate to save his family William makes a pact with the unknown Mr. Black. He spends the rest of his life increasing their fortune by setting up a lucrative business (which he names Bellman & Black) and bids his time waiting for Black’s arrival. What ensues is a beautiful, heartbreaking tale about a mistake and living with the consequences.
Character development is a bit weak, but only because this is William’s story. We spend a great amount of time with him and the people in the village become afterthoughts. We have several secondary characters that are vital to the tale including his uncle Paul, his childhood friends, and even his wife and children. William suppresses the incident with the rook and therefore isn’t aware how much the incident shaped his character. His daughter, Dora, loves birds and is a budding artist, but has to hide her drawings from him because he can’t stand to look at birds. Yet, when asked why, he can’t give a reason. It’s also interesting how Setterfield sets up William’s background because it mirrors his present. He’s abandoned by his father and yet, in his quest to make Bellman & Black a success, he too leaves Dora alone to recover from her near death experience.
The narrative is engaging though the pace is slow. I never mark a book as “did not finish,” but admit the thought of abandoning it did cross my mind. It picked up for me at about 20% in. If you’re looking for a book that will give you long detailed accounts of daily life or William’s activities, you won’t find here. Setterfield’s goal was to quickly get to William’s adult life and show us how successful he could become because that sets the background to the plot. At times, I would have liked more detail with regards to specific events such as his courtship of his wife, but then I remind myself that this takes place during the Victorian age where courtships weren’t long. If I have one slight annoyance, it’s the use of rook facts. I enjoyed reading them, but I felt odd reading about them. At first I thought it was part of the initial narration and realized it’s separate. The facts do give it a spooky element and if reading late at night, it’s easy to become uneasy. In hindsight, I like how Setterfield sets this up and you’ll never look at a rook the same way. There are a few lose ends, but nothing that really ruins the narrative. I think about them and wonder how differently the outcome of the story could have been and I doubt there’s much that would affect it.
Bellman & Black is called a ghost story and while I can see why, I have to disagree. There are no ghostly apparitions as we expect, but rather a subtle haunting. Mr. Black tends to make himself known to William during funerals and even then, William struggles to make contact. Even when he finally does, he has no recollection of the meeting. When he finally does realize who Black is, you can feel the horror and the dread. While several scenes are easily identifiable as Gothic fiction, it’s this particular scene where Setterfield is in her element.
Fans of Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, I recommend reading a few reviews or downloading a sample because the overall consensus is mixed. If you’re looking for a quiet Gothic tale, I highly recommended Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black.