Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & BlackTitle: Bellman & Black
Diane Setterfield
Published: 5 November 2013
Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Simon & Schuster)
historical, literary, fantasy
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

When William Bellman is ten years old, he kills a rook with a seemingly impossible shot from his catapult. His friends are impressed, but something about it unnerves William. Later, he sees a boy dressed in black standing under the tree where the rook died. The next day he wakes with a terrible fever and applies his mind to an extraordinary mental feat: forgetting.

William grows up into a smart, handsome, hardworking man. His mother has had a tough time raising him alone, after being abandoned by her husband and shunned by his wealthy parents, but she and William have a strong relationship and he manages to find his way. His uncle hires him to work in the Bellman family wool mill, and William quickly learns how every aspect of the business works, finds the flaws, and suggests improvements. Thanks to him, the mill prospers. When he eventually takes over, he makes innovations and expansions that lead to unprecedented productivity and profits. He marries a beautiful woman and has four children.

But William’s otherwise perfect life is marred by escalating tragedy. The people related to him begin to die and every time William attends a funeral, he sees a mysterious man in black who doesn’t appear to be in mourning. When William is at his lowest after losing his family, the man in black finally approaches an opportunity. This encounter is the birth of Bellman and Black, a macabre business whose amazing success is matched only by William Bellman’s misery.

William is a haunted man, and it’s only in that sense that you could possibly call this a ghost story, which is what the novel is being marketed as. I think it’s extremely misguided. I wouldn’t even say that the book has a ghost in any traditional understanding of the word. Genre fans and ghost story fans will be drawn in, only to frustrated and disappointed. It’s like asking for bad ratings.

Bellman & Black is more like literary historical fiction with just the tiniest sliver of fantasy. It’s a psychological study of William and focuses heavily on the businesses he runs. First the mill, and then Bellman & Black. At the end of some of the chapters there are a few paragraphs about rooks – factual trivia, rooks in myth, fictional musing about what rooks do in their leisure time, a bit of rook philosophy, and collective nouns for rooks.

At first I enjoyed William’s story. It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but it gave me a great understanding of his industrious character, and it was nice to see this good, hard-working person get the success he deserved. Sometimes it’s comforting to read about good people living happy lives, and the only bad thing you could say about the young William Bellman is that he’s not a self-reflective man. I also had to admire Setterfield for the research she put into this. We get a detailed description of work at the mill, the process that turns raw wool into dyed cloth.

But what seemed like a slow start turned out to be a slow book. The pace never really changes; the story just become very tragic at times. Nothing about it is particularly creepy. After learning about the mill in the first part, you learn about how William sets up and runs Bellman & Black in the second part. He works constantly, sourcing the very best cloth, leather, paper. etc. and hiring the best people for his business. He pays attention to the tiniest of details, personally checks on almost everything, and works longer hours than anyone.

In fact, we see the work ethic William displayed in his youth turn into insanity. Initially, he uses work to escape from grief. Later, it becomes his entire life. His mind is always working, always going through the numbers and looking for solutions. He works nineteen hours a day, stopping only to sleep. He never takes the opportunity to enjoy his immense wealth, never eats a decadent meal or indulges in personal comforts. He just works and works and works, desperately trying to avoid even a moment of self-reflection, afraid of letting his mind wander. Because there are times when he has horrific dreams, terrifying visions of black wings, and is tormented by the spectre of the man he calls Black. William would prefer not to have to think about any of it, but at the same time he’s drawn bizarre conclusions that drive his behaviour.

It’s because of this that Bellman & Black is supposedly a ghost story, and why I said William Bellman is a haunted man. If that sounds good to you, then go for it. It’s a well-written book that I think was badly marketed.

But even though I tried to read it for what it is rather than what I was led to expect, I found it boring. Learning about the mill was fine; being immersed in the functioning of Bellman & Black was horribly tedious. William too becomes a very dreary character, and there are few others to give us a break from him. In fact, all the other characters are pretty flat and some exist only so that William can be affected by their deaths. Many aspects of his character are fascinating, but ultimately he’s a drag.

The rook trivia was the only aspect of the book that I found rewarding. I told two friends about it and they were so intrigued by the rooks that that was enough to make them want to read the book. The downside, I think, is that rooks aren’t very well integrated into the story. They appear often, but their links to the story are tenuous – William is scared of them, his daughter likes to draw them, they’re seen watching the characters, they have stunning black feathers and William becomes an expert in the colour black for business reasons, etc.

The ending, where we sort of learn what the point of all this was, is deeply disappointing. Honestly, if the blurb had been a better reflection of the book, if I’d known what this was really about, I would not have read it.