Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black William Bellman is ten years old when he hits a rook with his catapult and kills it. He and his friends had expected the bird to fly away before the stone hit it and are surprised to see it die. Just a small incident and William quickly moves on with his life, but as he grows older it seems that this brief moment of cruelty was much more significant than it seemed at the time.

William joins the family mill and through hard work and dedication he begins to rise in the world. As a rich, successful businessman with a wife and children he loves, life is perfect – but not for long. Soon, a series of tragic deaths start to destroy William’s happiness and he finds himself entering into partnership with a mysterious stranger dressed in black…

I found plenty of things to like about Bellman & Black but compared to Diane Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, it was disappointing. Although I didn’t love The Thirteenth Tale the way a lot of other readers did and consequently my expectations for this one weren’t too high, I definitely found her first book much more enjoyable than the second. Bellman & Black is packed with great, original ideas but I don’t think she was quite as successful at bringing all of these ideas together to form a satisfying story as she was with The Thirteenth Tale.

I think part of my problem with this book may have been that I just didn’t like William and felt somehow detached from him, so that even when he was going through times of tragedy and disaster I didn’t really care. And being able to care about William would have been a big advantage in a book where William was the only character who felt fully developed. Other characters come and go without the reader having a chance to get to know them properly; I thought William’s daughter, Dora, had potential but her character was never fleshed out enough for me to be able to warm to her.

Anyway, let’s move on to the things that I loved in Bellman & Black. Diane Setterfield has chosen to write about some fascinating aspects of Victorian culture and society! The first half of the book revolves around the running of a mill and we have the chance to learn about all the different areas of the textile industry, from the processes of producing and dyeing cloth to the benefits Bellman introduces to improve the welfare of his workers. In the second half of the book we explore the mourning business and the emporium William establishes in London as part of his deal with Mr Black (I kept being reminded here of Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise).

Interspersed with William’s story are some shorter passages which discuss rooks and ravens – their appearance and behaviour, their roles in history and mythology, and every other aspect of rooks and ravens that you could possibly imagine. I’m not sure if these sections really added anything to the plot, but I liked the concept and enjoyed reading them.

Bellman & Black is described as a ghost story, though despite the Gothic touches and the foreboding atmosphere, I don’t really think I would agree with that description. William Bellman is certainly haunted, but it’s more of a psychological haunting than a physical one, so if you’re looking for a traditional ghost story you won’t find one here. This is the sort of book that will make you think and look below the surface for hidden meanings – and when you reach the final page you’ll be left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve read.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

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21 thoughts on “Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

  1. Leander says:

    Yes! The shop parts reminded me of what little I’d seen of The Paradise and Mr Selfridge. Glad it wasn’t just me 🙂 You do have a point that the secondary characters felt a bit flat, but I understood this as being part of the slightly fantastical, fairytale quality of the writing. Nevertheless, I see that I’m definitely going to have to read The Thirteenth Tale to see how that compares and if you’re right, as I’m sure you are, it sounds as if I’m going to enjoy that even more than I did this. Wonderful to read your thoughts!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, you’re probably right that it was the fairytale style that made the characters feel flat. I hope you enjoy The Thirteenth Tale if you do decide to read it – I would be interested to know how you think the two books compare.

  2. Ludo says:

    I read Bellman & Black and liked it.

    The second part reminded me of The Ladies’ Paradise by Zola as well; whilst the first part reminded me of The woodlanders by Hardy for the rhythm and the atmospheres.

    I agree on the fact that this is a ghost story in the sense that it is about a man who is haunted psychologically; it was, in fact, a wise choice put “ghost story” on the jacket, but not on the title page.

    I went to a book signing event with Diane Setterfield a few days ago and she said that she wanted to write about a workaholic and how he coped with a specific thing in his existence (I am not going to say what for people who did not read the book.) I believe she succeeded in that sense. Going off topic, she also said that the TV adaptation of The thirteenth tale should air during the Christmas season.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked Bellman & Black! I did enjoy it, but not as much as I was hoping to. I’m looking forward to watching the adaptation of The Thirteenth Tale at Christmas. 🙂

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve seen several references to this but yours is the first review I’ve read. I’m interested in Victorian mourning culture, and I love shop stories, so I might keep an eye out for this.

  4. Fleur in her World says:

    We had very similar feelings about this one. I loved the details – and I thought of The Ladies’ Paradise too – but I wasn’t pulled in as I wanted to be. A pity, because the ideas were interesting, and I just have a feeling it needed to be shorter and simpler, or it could have been developed into a bigger book. I did like it, I just couldn’t love it as I’d hoped.

  5. Nish says:

    I didn’t much like The Thirteenth Tale, probably the hype killed it for me, and if you say that was better than this (without being a thirteenth tale fangirl), then this book is really not for me at all 😦

  6. tanya says:

    I just started this book last night. Based on everything I’ve heard, I don’t expect it to be as good as The Thirteenth Tale, which I quite enjoyed. But I must say that i do like her writing style. From the first pages I could feel myself settling into her prose. The premise of the story has not grabbed me so far, but that could change.

    • Helen says:

      I think it’s best not to go into this book with high expectations, then if you do love it it would be a nice surprise. I found the story quite slow at the beginning but it started to pick up after a few chapters – I just wish I could have enjoyed it more.

  7. Alex says:

    I also didn’t love The Thirteenth Tale and it put me off Setterfield. Only very good feedback by the book blogger community would convince me to try her again. I’m curious, why did you decide to pick up this one?

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t like The Thirteenth Tale as much as other people seem to, but I still wanted to try this one because it sounded like the sort of book I usually love (I’m always drawn to anything Victorian and gothic!) I think I like the sound of Setterfield’s books rather than the books themselves.

  8. mesetageresenfranglais says:

    This book is on my wish list as I really enjoyed the thirteenth tale. And that’s a shame if you say the second was less good. But I’ll see. Maybe all the pressure she had after the first one that was a best seller?

    • Helen says:

      Yes, when an author’s first book is so successful it must be difficult to write a second one that’s as good as the first. Maybe you’ll enjoy this one more than I did!

  9. aartichapati says:

    I have this one on my shelf to review but I admit that most of the reviews I’ve read of it do not make me want to pick it up at all! Now that I think of it, October would have been the right time to read it! oh, well.

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