Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
No. of Pages: 336
Genre: Historical Fiction; Thriller
Origins: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Release Date: 5 November 2013
Bottom Line: Compelling but ultimately disappointing
“Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .
Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.
And Bellman & Black is born.”
Thoughts: Bellman & Black cannot be classified as a horror story, because nothing truly horrific happens. There are no monsters, no gruesome scenes. Nothing suddenly appears to frighten. The characters follow the normal progression of life without meeting untimely deaths. Yet, there is a sense of unease that permeates the story. There are no monsters but there is a hint of malevolence creeping into each scene that is decidedly unsettling. The entire story, even the happy bits, has an undercurrent of bitterness to it that prevents William’s good fortune from being entirely satisfactory.
While it is not a horror story per se, Bellman & Black is definitely a Gothic story. Its atmosphere of mystery is a large portion of the story, as readers wait through the immense build-up before Mr. Black officially appears. It also lingers long after the final page, while readers decide upon which supernatural elements, if any, were at play throughout the story. The story’s initial rural setting also contributes to these potential supernatural elements as it helps establish the local beliefs and superstitions that lead directly into those supernatural sections. The unsettled feeling, the pall set forth by the illness that fells many a townsperson and the gloomy atmosphere that automatically partners with London during the Industrial Revolution help establish Bellman & Black’s Gothic status, while it is William’s confusion that causes most of the drama.
While Bellman & Black has all of the essentials for a spooky, Gothic novel, there is something decidedly anticlimactic about William’s story, to the point where the story’s conclusion is something of a disappointment rather than a ripping good novel. The first and second halves of the story are two disparate sections. The first half is so detailed. Everything about William is well-established and minutely described, from his unusual appetite for work to his unflagging optimism and even his beautiful relationship with his wife and children. One understands his motivations, his dreams and desires, and his utter contentment. The second half however remains clouded in mystery and unresolved questions. It is almost as if Ms. Setterfield was in a rush to end her novel and therefore did not grant it as much care and time as the first half of the story. Nothing changes about William, but answers are less than complete, if at all, and William’s downturn – if one could call it that – continues to be somewhat inexplicable. The appearance of Mr. Black and the business William opts to start are so unexplained as to appear random rather than careful plot points. William’s unanswered questions about his partnership with Black as well as his own doubts and confusions are meant to connect the reader with the main character but do more harm than good. This jaggedness in the story does serve to increase the air of mystery that resonates throughout the novel, but at the same time it causes a disharmony within a reader that lessens one’s interest and creates a level of impatience with the lack of answers. Had the first half of the story not been as explicit in its details, readers would not be quite as uninterested in the deliberately vague second half of the novel.
Bellman & Black is mostly a disappointment and not because it is poorly written, for it is not that. Ms. Setterfield has a way with words that makes it very easy to create mental pictures and take great leaps of understanding about a character’s thoughts and motivations. The problem lies with the fact that Ms. Setterfield takes the time to create such detailed and vivid physical descriptions in the first half of the story, but she allows unanswered questions to remain the focus of the second half. This is not to what readers have become accustomed, and the story suffers as a result. There is so much to love in this story of love and death, patience, acceptance, determination, and even possibly revenge. It is unfortunate that the abrupt shift from the meticulous to the abstract and enigmatic prevents one from completely loving this much-anticipated novel.