Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story 
By Diane Setterfield
Atria Books November 2013
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story

William Bellman is a fortunate man. His business is thriving and his family is large and happy. One day, his fortune turns and each person he cares about is taken from him. At each funeral, he sees a mysterious man that no one can seem to place. After his wife's death, he drunkenly visits the graveyard where he finally speaks with the mysterious man. He can't remember the bargain he made that night, but he knows that things start to go his way again. His daughter Dora survives the disease that took the rest of his family and Bellman has an idea for a new business venture, one that cannot fail. But what did he promise in return for his success?

I adored Setterfield's debut novel The Thirteenth Tale. It was the perfect blend of creepy and literary and it is a favorite story that I will read over and over again. I was so excited to see that Setterfield had written a new novel and I thought that a ghost story would be perfect for a Halloween read. Unfortunately, Bellman and Black is not a very good ghost story. It's not at all frightening and the mysterious man only appears on a handful of pages, although his presence is felt throughout. 

I saw someone refer to it as a parable, and I think that is a much better description of this novel. The characters do not feel particularly fleshed out. While there are a lot of characters who surround William, we spend very little time with any of them and so we don't care about them very much. William himself feels rather flat. We experience his emotion, especially when his loved ones begin dying, but it's still difficult to connect with him. Perhaps this owes something to the meticulous nature with which Setterfield describes his work; she writes in great details about both of his businesses, which leaves little time to really learn about the man who runs them. 

Throughout the story, we see and learn about the mysterious birds known as rooks. The books opens with William as a child. He takes what his friends believe to be an impossible bet and attempts to hit a far-off bird with his slingshot. He succeeds and the bird falls to the ground, dead. The rooks are the storytellers, the one who watch William for his whole life. I can see what the author was trying to do with this, but it never quite seemed to fit with the main narrative. 

Bellman and Black is not a bad book. But The Thirteenth Tale was such a fascinating and well-crafted story that this book falls very flat in comparison. The greatest problem is that subtitle. If it had not been marketed as a ghost story, I think that this book would have been better received.  There is no doubt that Diane Setterfield is a very talented author. Unfortunately the lack of characterization and the bizarre marketing decision leave this book far behind her previous novel. 


  1. Interesting review, Lindsey. Sorry to know that you did not like 'Bellman and Black' as much as Diane Setterfield's first novel 'The Thirteenth Tale'. The mystery is quite interesting - one wants to find out what Bellman promised in return for his success. It sounds very Faustian.

    1. She's a very good writer. There are very few authors I've read where I have adored every book.

  2. I'm actually glad I have some lowered expectations going into this book. The reviews have been iffy at best. I'll give it a go because I love Setterfield's writing (or I did in the Thirteenth Tale), but I'm not expecting much. Blarg!

    1. I feel like that's such a sad way to begin a book. But I think if you can separate it from the ghost story expectations and comparisons to The Thirteenth Tale, it's an enjoyable read!