Jemm Frances Reads…Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

I’ve been meaning to get this review up for a few weeks but one thing then another kept getting in the way. Here it is.

If you loved Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale then her second, Bellman and Black, will have been one of the most anticipated book releases of the past few years. Seven years to be exact, and the wait is finally over.

If you enter into reading this second novel expecting to find another Thirteenth Tale then you will be sorely disappointed simply for the fact that they are so different in story and style. Where The Thirteenth Tale was a twisting literary mystery, Bellman & Black is marketed as a Victorian ghost story.

It is a definitely a dark Victorian fable, but whether I’d personally describe it as a ghost story I’m not sure. The protagonist is certainly a haunted man, but more so by his own actions and the choices he makes rather than by any spectral beings. 

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Ten-year-old William Bellman fires his catapult at a rook all in the name of boyish fun; he is surprised when the stone finds its target, killing the bird. This unintentional act of cruelty, while gaining him the respect of his friends leaves William feeling uneasy. He returns home as the rooks gather to mourn their loss and forgets all about it. But rooks don’t forget. 

Despite his childhood indiscretion William goes on to live a seemingly fortunate life. A kind and likeable young man, he is blessed with good looks, intelligence and a cast iron work ethic which sees him transform the family business, his uncle’s textiles mill, into a thriving enterprise. One lucky turn follows another promotion, marriage and the birth of several healthy children. Is there anyone more blessed than William Bellman?

Even so, all actions have consequences and soon Bellman’s life takes an unlucky turn. One by one all those Bellman love begin to die and William is stalked and haunted by a mysterious man in black who is always silently present at their funerals. After the death of his wife and three of his children William goes to the graveyard to beg for the life of his eldest daughter. It is here that he encounters the man beside an open grave and Black makes him a bargain he can’t refuse. Amidst all that death a partnership is born…

Bellman and Black’s Mourning Emporium is Regent Streets most successful business but what did you expect with William at the helm? 

What will become of William Bellman? And exactly who is Mr Black?

I found this story little slow starting and confusing at first but not one to abandon a book I persisted with it. Once I reconciled myself to the difference in writing style compared to The Thirteenth Tale I found it easier to get along with and the story began to flow. While not exactly a ghost story as far as I’m concerned Bellman & Black is certainly an atmospheric tale with themes befitting of its Victorian nature; Business, hardship, loss, grief and a decent into insanity (ok, this one probably isn’t for you if you’re looking for a rainbows & unicorns kinda book) and where else would you find a Mourning Emporium if not in a Victorian novel?

As always Diane Setterfield’s research into the subject matter is meticulous. Her descriptions of the era, of the mill, of business transactions and of rooks are detailed and vivid. Perhaps too much so. At times I felt there was more description than there was story and on occasion the lengthy detail became tedious. I also wished that the wider cast of characters had been explored more. We are almost exclusively with William throughout the whole book and while the scene is conjured up brilliantly the people are left screaming for attention.

Despite these little niggles I cannot deny that this book is beautifully written and hits the mark of macabre and gothic perfectly. Overall, though slow in parts, I enjoyed reading Bellman & Black and the mysteries of the story kept me guessing till the end. 

I think my initial disappointment stems from the fact that I expected something similar to Diane’s first works. If you have yet to read this book I’d advise you expect nothing of the sort and approach it with an open mind. 

Bookworm Business: Have you read Bellman & Black yet? Thoughts? Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?

Click to read my review of Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale.

Jemm xoxo


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