Book Review: Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Welcome back for my weekly book review. I’d like to start out by wishing everyone happy holidays! Wishing you and your families a bright, warm, and safe season of celebration 🙂

17571907During my last trip to the library, I was perusing the audiobook shelves with no particular goals in mind. Choosing a novel at random, I discovered a beautiful cover with a collection of clockwork and deep purplish feathers. Reading the back cover, I found myself intrigued.

The Back Cover

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 10, 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” . . .

My Take?

Bellman and Black was a fascinating, cheeky, and clever novel, covering the lifespan of one William Bellman. From his humble beginnings as the only child to a single mother, to a hard-working apprentice at the local mill, all the way to the respectable owner of his own business, William jumps from one success to the next.   In family and friendship, Will also lives a charmed life, respected by neighbors and employees and surrounded by countless loved ones. That is, until those around him begin dying… one after the next until William himself is standing at death’s doorstep.

The novel takes place in London at the turn of the century and gives readers an in-depth look at what life was like during this revolutionary time. Innovations in textile processing, alchemy, and hydraulics lead to great financial gains. In between all of these technological changes, something darker is happening in the life of William Bellman. Strange shadows, terrible nightmares, and a mysterious man known only as Black haunt poor Will. But attempts to confront these ghosts only turn up new questions leaving the reader wondering if these fantastical happenings are based in truth or merely a trick of the mind, a skillfully written display of magical realism!

The imagery in this book was spectacular. The story itself was poetry, laying out the woven lifelines of characters in a bright tapestry with repeating themes, always circling back to a single incident during Will’s childhood involving a rook and a catapult. Brief interludes between chapters highlighted information on rooks, death rituals, and mythology in a manner that was both educational and humorous.

This book is not for everyone. It moves slowly, leaving the reader questioning what is actually going on. Even after completing the book, there were still some loose ends left open for the reader’s interpretation. Despite this, the conclusion of the book was wonderfully and artfully written, a poetic display wrapping up the novel into  a neat literary package.

I give Bellman and Black Four out of Five Stars. Due to the slow pacing and convoluted plot, this novel may not be for everyone, but overall I found it entertaining, intriguing, and overall highly enjoyable.

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!



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