Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

“Death will have his day…”

😐 😐 😐

Bellman & BlackWhen he was 10, William Bellman made a bet with his friends that he could hit a rook with a stone from his catapult. As the stone arced through the air, he realised he didn’t want to kill the bird – but too late. The deed was done. And this act of mindless cruelty follows him through his life…

A strange book, this one. The blurb promises a Victorian ghost story, but instead we get a very lengthy and detailed description of one man’s life as he forges a successful career first as the manager of a cloth factory and later as he strikes out to create his own unique emporium in the centre of London. The use of language is skilful, occasionally beautiful, and the story of William’s trials ought to have made it an emotional read, but somehow it fails. Even at the darkest point of the story, I was left entirely unmoved. On consideration, I think this is because William himself is a cold character, who uses work as a shield to protect himself from facing the very human problems life throws at him. It’s clear that we are supposed to assume that William feels strongly, particularly about his family, but nothing in his actions or thoughts shows us that. mourningAnd I got very tired of hearing about how he saw everything as a calculation, with the constant repetition of the words add, subtract, multiply and divide.

As the book progresses and William becomes ever more successful, richer, and yet retreats more and more from life, this reminded me of the story of Scrooge, prior to his ghostly visitations. But where A Christmas Carol has humour, fear and ultimately redemption, Bellman & Black has none of these. William’s story is laid out in a linear fashion, and while the descriptions of the factory and later the emporium have a kind of fascination, in fact nothing much happens; and William’s ghosts, whether real or created by his mind, seem to be an irrelevance. The book is intercut with little bits of information about rooks, but although these are given as if central to the plot, they seemed ultimately pointless – at least to me.

Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield

In the end, I regret to say that I found the book dull. The regret is because I felt the quality of the writing was let down by the lack of a strong narrative, a sympathetic lead character and, most of all, an emotional heart to the book. It’s not a particularly long book but it took me a long time to read because it failed to engage or hold my attention. For me, I’m afraid it is another that falls into the category of tons of research – in this case, about manufacturing, retail, and customs surrounding death and burial in Victorian times – being streamed back out at the reader with no real narrative purpose or point. Overall, a disappointment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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19 thoughts on “Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

  1. I remember thinking this one would be quite interesting. Wouldn’t be the first time the professor was deceived. Personally, I feel that if he didn’t care about the rook, he would have led a much better life, and ultimately, had a better book written about him.


  2. FictionFan – Sorry to hear that this one didn’t draw you in. The setting and historical tone of the novel got my attention, but maybe I’ll pass on this one. Interesting isn’t it how a character can have such a powerful effect on whether we’re really drawn to a book or not…


    • Indeed! This one started out well but really very little happened and it didn’t make me care what happened to the lead character. It’s getting the balance between description, plot and character that’s so crucial…


  3. OK, that settles it. I was one of the few people I know who really did not like ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ and I was feeling almost obliged to read this to see if I had given Setterfield a fair trial, but if you found it dull then I am putting it to one side. Life is too short…..


    • Certainly I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it. The writing was fine, but just no narrative drive and I found William’s life uninteresting. She’d obviously done her research but hadn’t really found a good vehicle for it.


  4. This was one of the books that Amazon “recommended” to me, but when I read the blurb I didn’t fancy it, largely because I find gratuitous cruelty unattractive. Glad I didn’t misjudge it.


  5. Relieved to hear that I didn’t really miss out on this one. I considered requesting it multiple times, but I kept hovering between thinking it was eye-catching and not quite interesting enough, so I chose not to read it. Sorry you had to struggle through.


    • I struggled on but kinda wish I hadn’t bothered. I kept hoping that she’d turn it around and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile – but she didn’t. Oh well!

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂


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