Bellman and Black – Diane Setterfield

Also known as book four of the TBR Tackle. Making progress!


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 11, 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” . . .


A vague blurb, a gloomy atmosphere, and a pretty cover. That pretty much sums up Bellman and Black. It is by no means a ghost story, though I suppose it has a passing resemblance to one due to its focus on death and memory. All I know for certain is that I had to think, think, and think some more before I felt comfortable forming an opinion.

My feelings are mostly mixed. On one hand, Ms. Setterfield’s eye for detail is meticulous, but on the other I was left with such a vague overall impression that I didn’t know what to make of the book. The story itself only starts to make sense once you piece it with the bits of folklore surrounding rooks interspersed with the narrative, yet even that only raises more questions. Who is Black? What is his deal with Bellman really about? And what’s going on with Bellman himself? In burying himself in work (quite like most of his family gets buried…this would make a GREAT book club book) he escapes grief and memory, but he loses himself in the process. Without giving too much away, I think Black helps him find himself again. Girl No. 9 felt like a red herring to me. I kept expecting much more to happen with her. And while this is supposed to focus on young Bellman’s childhood act against a single rook, I would have thought rooks carried even more weight, not just myths and such, but…

To get the most out of this book, I think you have to consider it on a cerebral, symbolic level. You have to really sit and think about it to understand it. And you’d better not get your feelings hurt when you still find loose ends. Not a bad read, but it could have been a lot better.

About RisingPhoenix761

Hello! Glad to meet you! Long story short, I've got a young heart with an old soul, I love to think about stuff, and occasionally share what I think about. Stick around, if you like!
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