This book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who “could go to the good or the bad.” And indeed, although William Bellman’s life at first seems blessed—he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business—one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave—and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William—a mysterious business called “Bellman & Black.” (via Goodreads)
First: Lately, I’ve seen quite a few reviews of this books. Many of these reviews were written by readers who are fans of Diane Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale. Indeed there seems to be ardent love for that book and many of these reviewers have found Bellman & Black disappointing. I haven’t read The Thirteenth Tale, so I came to Bellman & Black with no preconceptions.
Second: I don’t think the first sentence of the above blurb is accurate or does justice to this book. The only truth I find in the statement is that, yes, it is beautifully written, although the number of names and places is occasionally dizzying. But I didn’t find it to be ‘heart-thumping” or particularly “tense.” It is, on the other hand, a very subtle novel. My first inclination is to say that it’s too long and too overly detailed, but I’d be wrong. The point of Bellman & Black is to live life with William Bellman and have the same epiphany that he has at the end. The entire book is needed. Bellman, even at his worst, is a likeable character and I didn’t mind spending time with him. The “perfect ghost story”? No, but within the bounds of literary fiction (versus horror fiction) and as a meditation on mortality and memory, it’s certainly a very good one.
Bellman & Black can’t be read quickly. It’s not popcorn or potato chips. I’m glad that Setterfield’s first book was popular because I can’t help but think that this deliberate, quiet book might not have gotten published on its own. I would love to be wrong about this, but the publishing world seems very fixated on certain stories and certain tropes. Bellman & Black is very much a raven among those doves.
Genre: Literary ghost story.
Why did I choose to read this book? Ravens, death, 19th century setting
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Craft Lessons: I hope it’s okay to breathe sometimes.
Format: Kindle ebook, Adobe Digital Edition