Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black‘ is the new novel by Diane Setterfield, author of ‘The Thirteenth Tale‘. The story opens with the incident around which the entire plots twists. While his three friends watch, William Bellman makes a perfect shot with his catapult, striking and killing a rook in a faraway tree. While his friends are impressed, the day is mostly forgotten and William grows. William’s work ethic, problem-solving attitude, people skills, and ability to learn things quickly serves him well, and he becomes an extraordinarily successful businessman and industrialist. He also falls in love and has a family.

However, as his star rises, there always seems to be a rook around. People around him start dying, and at all the funerals Bellman attends, there is a strange man in black watching. Eventually, tragedy strikes closer to home, and Bellman makes a deal with ‘Black’. Professionally, his success continues, but things are never the same after that.

The official blurb for the book calls ‘Bellman & Black’ a “heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line.” While the book was well-written, it was less eerie than I wanted. I expected an atmospheric book, with a slightly gothic feel (along the lines of Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Erin Morgenstern). I did not feel any “ratcheting tension” at all. The story was slow-moving and quotidian. Setterfield scattered references to rooks in the background of Bellman’s life, watching him, but it was obvious from the beginning where the story was going. There was no sense of mystery, and the supernatural was barely present.

‘Bellman & Black’ was very character-driven, particularly by the main character, William Bellman. I found Will a bit dull. Most of the book was devoted to his business decisions–becoming head of the mill, arranging for food for his workers, constructing his mourning emporium, doing paperwork, setting business goals. There was too much detail about his work life, and he didn’t have an interesting character to carry the business details.

Yet, I loved the last 20 pages. In the last 20 pages, the atmosphere, the emotion, the mystery that was missing for the book finally appeared. Had the entire book been written like the end, it would have lived up to its description. In fact, I think ‘Bellman & Black’ might have worked better as a short story or novella.

I’ve only heard wonderful things about Setterfield’s first book, ‘The Thirteenth Tale,’ and I still intend to go back and read it someday. ‘Bellman & Black’ might be a good book for people who like fantasy or supernatural without a lot of gothic embellishment and flowery language. People interested slow-growing family dramas may also be interested as well.

2.5 stars.

I received an ARC of Bellman & Black through NetGalley. Bellman & Black will be released on November 5th, 2013.


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