Review: Bellman and Black by Diana Setterfield
Published October 10th 2013 by Orion
Review copy received from Netgalley
Contrary to what the subtitle might make you want to believe, there are very little ghost story elements in Bellman and Black. Many people have been disappointed with this book because they loved the other book by this author. I haven’t read her other book, so I went into the book without any expectations.
The story follows the life of William Bellman, a boy that kills a rook when he was young. Apart from William’s life, there is barely any plot.
I have the vague impression that I’ve either (1) completely missed the point of the book or (2) the point was so terribly done that that what I got was all that there was. I think I understand what Ms Setterfield was going for. Bellman and Black tries to be a haunting book about a boy whose life is set in stone after one action. Instead we read a meandering tale about one man that goes through life, does things, with some random dude that pops up once in a while doing absolutely nothing.
Rooks are a huge part of the story, and the author tries to convince us of the awesomeness and cleverness of them. To be honest I don’t give a flying Frisbee about birds. The tiny chapters describing the (made up) history of rooks felt forced and admittedly pretty dull.
William is a business man. First he works in a mill where textile is made and dyed, and after a while he becomes manager of the mill and spreads his empire. Huge parts of the book (almost all of it) deals with William doing businessy things. It describes how he treats the employees, how he goes around his note keeping, how he barely spends any time at home… Again, almost no plot here.
I honestly don’t know what to make of Bellman and Black. The writing is easy and nice, which is probably the only reason I managed to finish the book. It wasn’t even a bad book, just a rather pointless one.
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”…
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