I was very pleased when NetGalley offered me an advance Kindle copy of Bellman and Black and really looked forward to reading it. I loved The Thirteenth Tale and found it completely gripping. (It’s available for the Kindle at £1.99, BTW.)
Here’s the publisher’s advance description of Diane Setterfield’s new book:
‘As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that has unforeseen and terrible consequences. By the time he is grown, with a family of his own, he seems to be a man blessed by fortune—until tragedy strikes.’
The cruel act is the killing of a rook with a catapult. That’s not a spoiler, as it happens at the start of the book. Will Bellman can make a better catapult than anyone else, just as later in life he will understand machinery, master accounts and introduce innovations in business. He goes into his uncle’s woollen mill and is soon in control of it. He marries, has children, seems set for a prosperous life. All is not well, though. The rooks all disappeared after that one death but every now and then Will senses a fluttering of wings, catches a glimpse of a shiny feather. Then there’s the strange man who turns up at funerals (so many funerals!) but whom no one else can see. Will suffers inexplicable panic attacks and fits of vertigo. When his child is dying, he meets the stranger in the graveyard and comes away believing that he has made a pact with him: the child’s life for a business deal. This is the start of the great enterprise of Bellman and Black.
Will hands over his work at the mill to others and founds a wonderful emporium catering to the Victorian obsession with mourning. The descriptions of how this great palace of mourning was built, stocked and staffed are fascinating. When it’s complete, Will uses his own name, Bellman, but what of his ‘partner’? He decides to call him Black. The shop prospers, Will becomes rich, but gets to a point where he works non-stop to keep his panics and thoughts of Black at bay. How long can he keep mentally running away?
This book is subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’ but for me it was sadly lacking in any sense of menace; I expect to feel at least a little frightened by the supernatural. It’s also lacking a sense of time and place. When the story begins, you deduce from internal evidence that the characters probably live in nineteenth century Gloucestershire, but there’s no hard evidence until half way through. When the mill was first mentioned, for instance, I thought of a windmill. I don’t mean that every book like this should begin, ‘In the year of Our Lord 18--, in the town of – in Blankshire, a young boy …’ but a little hint would have been useful. Then there are the rooks. The text is intercut with snippets of natural history and mythology about them. Personally, I dislike rooks and couldn’t care less how many of them are shot. I certainly can’t believe that they have any special powers. Sentences like these failed to impress me: ‘An urgent rook in the treetops cawed a stony message that only the dead man heard.’ ‘A pair of ragged rooks flew airily overhead, talking philosophy and laughing.’ ‘blue-black feather and protein from rook flesh becomes human skin. There is a cousinly intimacy between rooks and men.’ Oh no there isn’t! I also found this sort of thing less than dramatic: ‘Something had ended. Something was about to begin.’ No menace, you see.
So, am I recommending the book? Yes, because it is a good read, just rather disappointing for me.
Published by Atria Books, 5th November.