Book review: Bellman & Black

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Nicky Pellegrino is fascinated by the rituals of death in the Victorian era.

Diane Setterfield has followed her first novel with one equally as atmospheric.
Diane Setterfield has followed her first novel with one equally as atmospheric.

The Gothic ghost story is a literary category that never goes out of fashion. The latest offering in the genre, Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield (Orion), seems promising from the outset. This UK author has a short but glorious pedigree. Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is one of my all-time favourites (if you haven't read it then you have a treat in store) and I've been impatiently awaiting a follow-up.

It's as atmospheric, dark and brooding as that first book but this one is a very different beast. It's a quieter, more straightforward piece of fiction, missing the secrets, the twists and turns, and the story framed within a story.

Bellman & Black is a Victorian-era novel about death told through the life of its principal character, William Bellman.

As a young boy playing with his friends, William kills a rook with a catapult. He is remorseful but soon the act of cruelty is almost forgotten.

William grows up and becomes a success. He works at the family business, a fabric mill, and proves to be a hard worker with good business sense. His career goes from strength to strength, he marries and has children. As the years pass he seems to be blessed with good fortune - all except for the deaths. One by one everyone close to him is taken before their time, until there is only a single person left whom he cares about.

At each of the many funerals he attends, William spies a stranger in black. Finally, standing among the gravestones in the churchyard, when he is at his lowest ebb, he meets the mystery man and strikes a bargain with him; or at least believes he has.

This is a finely detailed novel. Most fascinating is the description of Victorian mourning rituals and that era's fashion for extravagance and accessories in marking death. Less intriguing are the details of William's working life as he takes his place at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. And if you like your loose endings tied up then the rooks that sweep in and out of the story, possibly haunting, possibly not, are a device that may become frustrating.

Bellman & Black isn't a spooky ghost story, more one with a pervasive sense of foreboding. To me, it's a morality tale with a fairly simple caution at its core. It's about the futility of earthly endeavours such as business deals and contracts, profits and losses, status and success when all that counts is compassion, memory and love.

Although not nearly as magical as The Thirteenth Tale, this is a beautifully constructed story of life and death. Setterfield's prose is elegant and subtle, her story-telling precise; she is a writer who knows when to hold back.

- Herald on Sunday

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