Genre: Adult, Paranormal, Mystery, Ghosts, Historical Fiction, Gothic Publication.Date: November 5, 2013 Pages: 337 (ARC paperback) Published By: Atria/Emily Bestler Books Website: Diane Setterfield Bellman & Black on Goodreads My review copy: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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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" . . .
It was a decision that she had taken early on. Once you said a thing, it could never be taken back and wold be taken up and repeated and altered and told again, no matter how misshapen and out of true. Better to say nothing.
And William? Fatherless son of a fatherless son, William was free of all that. He rose above habit, saw through tradition, understood things the way they were. The past had no hold on him. Perhaps that's why his vision of the future was so strong. Without the past to cast its long shadow, might you see the future more clearly? You could almost envy him.
Rooks are skilled survivors. They are ancient and hive inhabited the planet longer than humans. This you can tell from his singing voice: his cry is harsh andy rating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimics the grey rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself. This being the case, you can hardly be surprised that his song has not the sweet loveliness of the blackbird in your spring garden. (But if you ever get the chance, open your ears to a sky full of rooks. It is not beautiful; it is magnificent.)
William did not like the pages in his wife's hand. Black ink on white. A dean mad speaking through his wife's lips. He could not find the words to tell her so.
She put the letter down with a sharp little cry. 'Oh, William! To think! He was no older than you!'
He was three weeks older than me, William thought.
William left Rose to her reading and went to his abacus.
When your story comes to an end, a rook will harvest it, as I harvested William Bellman's story. So when you arrive at the last line of the last page, it is Though or Memory or one of their many descendants who will be waiting to accompany yours the book closes on your story. En route, over the last blank page and beyond the covers to that other unknown place, your rook will harvest your story. Later, he will make his way backs without you. And then, when the time is right, he will make his way to the white page of the sky where he will partake in the most important rook ritual of all.
The novel started out beautifully, albeit a little slow. Diane's prose are so wonderfully constructed that you cannot help but love her narration and writing technique. Unfortunately, the slowness does not pick up and the characters and plot do not live up to the amazing writing. Despite the high quality of the narrative, the story didn't grip my interest. It's almost as if nothing happens. We are told these day to day events of William Bellman, a man whose fortune goes from good to bad in a matter of months.
The plot is thin and the characters uninteresting. Most of these characters end up dying, but I don't know enough about them to be upset or even care in the slightest. So much detail went into how the mill and shop were run, but it all is filler. I would have much preferred to learn more about these characters - there is no depth to them or their lives. I wanted to dive into Bellman & Black, not skim along the surface.
I would normally star a DNF with a 1/5, but due to Diane's amazing writing style, I did feel that 1 flower was a too harsh. Her writing style is reminiscent of classic Gothic novels that we all know and love. Her meticulously detailed scenes put you into the scenery and allow you a clear picture. Her sporadic chapters from the point of view of the rooks also indicate her obvious research into the history and behavior of rooks that added a little extra something to the novel itself.
For as much as I loved The Thirteenth Tale, it's unfortunate that I couldn't even finish Bellman & Black - I got about 161 pages in and that took me about a week to accomplish.