Book Review: Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

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It’s been a great number of years since Diane Setterfield has graced us with her work. I’ve eagerly searched and searched “new Diane Setterfield” after closing The Thirteenth Tale. Is it on purpose that she has taken 12 years to produce another? Is Bellman & Black out at the right time so as there can be no immediate comparison to anything The Thirteenth Tale gave us? Perhaps?

At any rate, Bellman & Black was a fairly good read but The Thirteenth Tale was better, in my opinion. I’m also not alone in that opinion apparently. One example comes from Michelle, over at That’s What She Read.  She provides a very nice summary of some of the very same thoughts I had upon closing the final page of Bellman & Black. You can read those thoughts here.

The cover for Bellman & Black is wonderfully arresting and the pages inside contained crisp, short chapters filled with writing that was oh so right.  Setterfield did not disappoint with her writing, certainly. She does write with great beauty and description but none of it is over-done or superfluous in any way. For example, Setterfield’s Rook:

“A rook’s feathers can shimmer with dazzling peacock colours yet factually speaking thee is no blue or purple or green pigment in a rook. Satin black on his back and head, on his front and towards his legs his blackness softens and deepens to velvet black….His black feathers are capable of producing an entrancing optical effect….He captures the light, splits it, absorbs some and radiates the rest in a delightful demonstration of optics, showing you the truth about light that your own poor eyes cannot see.”

Yet, Bellman & Black just didn’t reach the level of high expectation that I set for it. It turned out to be a well-written story with stunning detail in some points, but just an okay story at best. Bellman & Black is the tale of William Bellman and his eventual fall from grace following an event involving a rook and a few of his friends at the time, well pushed into his past. William is the disgraced son from a disowned father that is taken under the wing of his uncle to work at Bellman Mill. William, while considered something of an illegitimate child, does possess just the right looks and sings with a beautiful voice at every Sunday’s mass and is a very hard worker, skilled at whatever he turns his attention toward.

It is here, during the first half of the book with the buildup of William and his life, where you got the sense that he suffers from the Tom Cruise (or Will Smith) Syndrome. William is the best at everything. As soon as he starts at Bellman Mill, he flourishes. Under his eye the Mill does as well, turning considerable profit, becoming the first to create and mill new colours, to offer new services, to expand and make every single worker happy inside all because of his suggestions and attention. He is the very best at everything he does, just as Tom Cruise played the very best brother, the very best fighter pilot, the very best race car driver…you get the picture. It becomes tiring to read. This also goes on for a considerable amount of time and the “creepiness” of this tale takes some time to actually creep in. Actually, it never truly does achieve the level of creepiness I was anticipating.

Always in the background are the rooks and one man dressed all in black. This mysterious man appears at every single funeral of those close to Will. See, slowly all those close to Will die in some manner. He is always around to either try to save them, or to watch them die. And yet, again, it just doesn’t really register to Will that this is happening to him for a reason. The reader, and Will, never truly get the sense of that foreboding presence of death or danger. The rooks that are also ever present are to serve a reminder to Will of what he did as a young boy. But it never seems as though Will gets that, nor is the reader provided with a heightened sense of foreboding because of their presence . Yes, they are there, always present and Will does become very uneasy all the time when one is around, but it just misses that heightened level of eeriness you would expect. When the mysterious man in black finally comes out from the shadows and makes a deal with Will, that too doesn’t come about with an ominous or edginess aspect. Here again is where we see that Will is the very, very best at everything, including bettering the medical profession. When “the fever” strikes everyone in Will’s family, it is only Will that can diagnose, treat and come up with remedies for his family. Unfortunately, all but one, his beloved first-born, Dora survives (and of course Will, himself).

This is where “the deal” with Black is born. On the evening he is finally able to connect with this mysterious Mr. Black (as Will now determines his name to be), Dora recovers from the fever. Although she remains sickly and never recovers her former beauty, she is alive. It is during the time while Will is burying members of his family one by one that another idea forms in his mind. This idea however is one he attributes to Mr. Black. Will leaves the enormously successful Bellman Mill and sets about creating Bellman & Black. This is a new form of millinery and one focused on mourning. Bellman & Black is in the business of death. Will is consumed with building and working at Bellman & Black. He becomes obsessed with work, lives in his office and never stops working. This is what is to be his “punishment”. It’s remarkably lacklustre isn’t it? For, only as he nears the end of his life does he realize that he never took the time to remember or to hold close any memories dear to him of his family and his life.

And there you have it. Not creepy, not really a ghost story that chills you to the bone, more of a cautionary tale to take the time to smell the roses. As Michelle from That’s What She Read wrote, the book’s end is quite anticlimactic. Yes, I agree with that completely. As well as these thoughts (see, like I said, Michelle read it the same way as I did. ;-) ) :

The first half is so detailed. Everything about William is well-established and minutely described, from his unusual appetite for work to his unflagging optimism and even his beautiful relationship with his wife and children. One understands his motivations, his dreams and desires, and his utter contentment. The second half however remains clouded in mystery and unresolved questions. It is almost as if Ms. Setterfield was in a rush to end her novel and therefore did not grant it as much care and time as the first half of the story. Nothing changes about William, but answers are less than complete, if at all, and William’s downturn – if one could call it that – continues to be somewhat inexplicable. The appearance of Mr. Black and the business William opts to start are so unexplained as to appear random rather than careful plot points. William’s unanswered questions about his partnership with Black as well as his own doubts and confusions are meant to connect the reader with the main character but do more harm than good. This jaggedness in the story does serve to increase the air of mystery that resonates throughout the novel, but at the same time it causes a disharmony within a reader that lessens one’s interest and creates a level of impatience with the lack of answers. Had the first half of the story not been as explicit in its details, readers would not be quite as uninterested in the deliberately vague second half of the novel.

I don’t think I could have summed it up any better than that. Therefore, Bellman & Black is a disappointing read overall, but certainly not due to Setterfield’s gift of writing, which is lovely, but because the “promised” eeriness or horror never truly emerges. There definitely is disinterest and ultimately a serious let down in the second half of the book and its ending. 3.5 stars.

As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforseen and terrible consequences. The killing of a rook with his catapult is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. And by the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, he seems indeed, to be a man blessed by fortune.

Until tragedy strikes, and the stranger in black comes, and William Bellman starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, he enters into a bargain. A rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born. (

Thank you to Random House Canada for allowing us the pleasure of reading Bellman & Black in advance of its publication date.