Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
10 October, 2013
It’s been 6 long years since Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale touched me with its gothic structure encasing a twisted tale of siblings with red tresses. I squealed with excitement on learning her new novel, Bellman & Black, was to be published this year and almost fainted when I won a copy of a signed ARC from Orion Books which I collected from Goldsboro Books situated in a tiny lane filled with antiquarian bookshops connecting Leicester Square to Covent Garden. Wonderful!
Bellman & Black is the tale of William Bellman, son to the heir of Bellman Mills so unceremoniously kicked out after making a hasty marriage and who subsequently disappears leaving his baby son and heartbroken wife in the small town of Whittingford. But William grows up hearty and loved and carries the potential of hope and happiness around him. But a childhood incident binds him to his playmates and will change his life forever although he doesn’t know it as he grows older and is hired by his uncle Paul to help run his family mill. Everything William touches flourishes and soon Bellman Mills’ success means they cannot do without William. But when he loses his mother, slowly his life begins to unravel. Even a happy marriage and children cannot stem the slow encroachment of the darkness which began that fateful day when William and his friends killed a rook when they were ten. While William struggles with his memories and suppresses his horror of death, his business empire expands until he comes up with the idea of creating a business which has never been seen before. He will call it Bellman & Black – but who is this mysterious Mr. Black who has haunted William since his mother’s death? And is William’s slow transformation into a workaholic man determined not to be bound by time really ok?
There is so much to love about this book. The writing style, the structure, the way in which Setterfield subtly interweaves all her incredible ideas into not only a coherent but a touchingly beautiful story devoid of over-sentimentalisation is wonderful. Bellman & Black is difficult to categorise. On one hand it is a gothic tale but split into two. The first half charting the rise of William Bellman and filled with laughter and happy memories. The second is a totally different side showing all the different shades of black so beloved of Bellman & Black’s emporium. The novel was somewhat different from what I anticipated, a straightforward contract regarding death, but it became something else entirely. I felt I had gone on a long journey with William and come out feeling so much for him. Setterfield masterfully makes the reader forget the past as well as she did William. For this novel is about thought and memory and rooks. There’s layer upon layer of dark and sorrow and yet it’s not empty of hope and love.
You can spot lots of Dickensian characters in Bellman & Black which sets the scene for the tale dusted with a touch of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. And you will learn a lot about mills and cloth and retail and especially about how to be a cracking businessman. And you will also learn about how to be a part of a community and how to be alone. And you will learn not to harm any rooks. Bellman & Black is a beautifully written tale. Just perfect.
I read this as part of R.I.P. VIII.