Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield, Atria Books, 2013, 328 pp
Some of the most exciting news lately, for me, is that Diane Setterfield has a new novel coming out in December of this year. The title is Once Upon A River.
Along with almost every other reader I know, I read her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, soon after it was published in 2006. I loved it unconditionally and was looking forward to more novels by Ms Setterfield. It was a long wait.
When Bellman & Black was finally going to be published in 2013, I nabbed an advance copy but fell prey to the many lukewarm and even negative reviews. I should have known better but I never read it. After learning about the new book, I made Bellman & Black the August selection for my Read 12 Books From My TBR Lists project. It is a spectacular novel.
William Bellman is ten years old when the story opens. He and his friends are playing with his new slingshot and he bets them he can hit a bird in a tree far across the meadow. It is an almost impossible shot but the young rook, another name for crow, falls dead.
William lives alone with his mother in a 19th century English mill town. His father was of the wealthy mill owning family, a man who had no interest in the mill, who defied his father by marrying a lower class woman, and then deserted her and their son. The boy knows he is not accepted by his grandfather.
In truth, he feels he may be somehow to blame, as deserted children often do. The killing of the rook becomes entangled in his mind with his guilt about his father but he manages to forget the incident completely.
As years go by, William grows into a bright, hardworking young man. He gets a job at the mill and is so clever, so full of curiosity and understanding about it operations, that he comes up with many good ideas for solving its problems. He becomes his uncle's right hand man.
He ends up managing the business and marries a woman for whom he has a great love. They have several children. Tragedy strikes in the form of a fever that kills his wife and all but one child. From that point the story takes on the Gothic feel of the first novel.
An elusive gentleman turns up in the graveyard just when his remaining daughter seems about to succumb to the fever. William thinks of him as Mr Black. When he opens a stupendously successful business in mourning services (apparel, coffins and burials) he names it Bellman & Black. In the depths of his psyche, William feels he made some kind of bargain with Mr Black in exchange for his daughter's life.
Many reviews and even the publisher call this a ghost story. If the mysterious Mr Black is the ghost of the murdered crow, I can see how that could make it so. I found it more of a descent into madness tale or a psychological thriller in the form of a haunting.
There are crows in abundance, graveyards, funerals and a lot of black. William has a Midas touch when it comes to business but he is driven by guilt and other haunted thoughts. What I loved most in The Thirteenth Tale, the creepiness, the growing tension, the fear of something that cannot be clearly discerned, is just as masterfully done in Bellman & Black.
I can't quite see why so many readers were disappointed. Did they expect the author to write another book just like her first one? In some ways she did though with a male protagonist and in an earlier century. I can hardly wait for December.