Paul's Reviews > Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
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it was ok
bookshelves: ghost-stories

2.5 stars
Despite all the write ups saying this is a ghost story, for me it clearly is not. It is certainly a hefty slice of Victorian gothic which reads very easily. Essentially it is the life of William Bellman with some detailed descriptions of the milling business and the Victorian funeral industry. There is also a great deal about rooks and the mythology surrounding them. When he is ten William is playing with three friends. He aims his catapult at a bird at an impossible distance. By some fluke he kills the bird and the reader is left to feel this has far more significance than is realised at the time and there are several descriptive passages about rooks dotted throughout:
“A rook’s feathers can shimmer with dazzling peacock colours yet factually speaking there is no blue or purple or green pigment in a rook. Satin black on his back and head, on his front and towards his legs his blackness softens and deepens to velvet black….His black feathers are capable of producing an entrancing optical effect….He captures the light, splits it, absorbs some and radiates the rest in a delightful demonstration of optics, showing you the truth about light that your own poor eyes cannot see.”
The book is a run through of Bellman’s life. He starts work in the mill owned by his family; he is not in line to own it but shows himself to be very capable; remarkably do in fact. In time he does come to own the mill and turns it into a very prosperous business. He also marries and has a brood of children. As Bellman attends funerals of older members of his family he notices a man dressed in black at the graveside of these funerals. Tragedy strikes and Bellman’s wife and all bar one of his children die. The mysterious man in black is at the gravesides and Bellman becomes obsessed with him. He addresses him at a graveside alone and seems to think they have struck a deal to keep Bellman’s one remaining child alive. Bellman conceives a large emporium which deals with every aspect of the death industry from clothing to grave goods, coffins and so on. It is to be a magnificent edifice and the elusive Mr Black (as Bellman has christened him), is seen by Bellman as a sleeping partner. The business thrives and the descriptions of the business premises are amongst the most gothic parts of the book. Of course the rooks and Mr Black haven’t finished with Bellman yet.
“The rook is a skilled survivor… his cry is harsh and grating, 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 mimicked the great 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.)”
“[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.”
The bits about rooks are the best bits in the book. The descriptions of the mill and the shop and the mourning rituals are all well and good, but certainly not ghostly! The real problem is that the novel is very much focused on Bellman and to be frank he is rather boring. The thought and memory aspects don’t really come into play until towards the end of the book, which is a pity. On the whole a disappointment.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 31, 2019 – Shelved
March 31, 2019 – Shelved as: ghost-stories
March 31, 2019 – Finished Reading

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