As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforeseen 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 and Black is born...
I was a huge fan of Diane Setterfield's first book, The Thirteenth Tale so I was extremely excited to see that she had written a new one. Bellman and Black is a fascinating read; it is dark and mysterious, leaving you feel quite unsettled but in a good way.
William Bellman is the central character and at the beginning of the book he is just a boy. A boy who kills a rook with his catapult, showing off to his friends. This one small act has consequences when he becomes an adult. The folklore surrounding rooks is a big part of the book; these birds remember everything and can foresee death and tragedy. The details of the folklore meant that I didn't question this aspect of the book at all. I just felt that William Bellman was going to be punished for taking the rook's life, even though he had no idea that his actions would have any kind of consequences.
In the first part of the book we see that William Bellman is a good man and particularly hard working. He goes from being an apprentice at his uncle's mill to running the whole business. He has a loving wife and several beautiful children. The second part of the book sees the downturn of Bellman's life; those close to him start dying and only his daughter is left. He makes a deal with the mysterious Mr Black to save her. Mr Black has been appearing at the funerals of all those Bellman has lost; Bellman has no idea who he is or where he has come from but he does know that if he does as Black says then his daughter will survive. So Bellman sets up Bellman and Black, a mourning emporium. He sells nearly everything to do with death, he is effectively profiting from other people's losses. Bellman is so relieved that his daughter has been spared but he begins to question who exactly Mr Black is and why has nobody else seen him?
Bellman and Black is described as a ghost story and it does have that Victorian/gothic feel to it. However, I think it would be better described as a mystery as this is not a tale about things that go bump in the night.
Diane Setterfield's writing is extraordinary, I felt like she drew me into the story from the very first page and then weaved a wonderful fictional world around me. As I said, I felt that the idea of the rooks was entirely believable and I couldn't stop reading as I wanted to know what would become of William Bellman. He is such a good character and I completely loved the idea of a mourning emporium, it was the perfect fit for the Victorian period.
Bellman and Black is an excellent read that showcases Diane Setterfield's many talents for storytelling.
Many thanks to Orion for allowing me to read a review copy via Netgalley.