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Book 53: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Book 53: Bellman & Black.
Author: Diane Setterfield, 2013.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Gothic Novel.
Other Details: Hardback. 320 pages.

As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforeseen and terrible consequences. The killing of a rook with his catapult is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. And by the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, he seems indeed, to be a man blessed by fortune. Until tragedy strikes, and the stranger in black comes, and William Bellman starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, he enters into a bargain. A rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business. And Bellman & Black is born. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.

I have mixed feeling about this novel. Setterfield writes beautifully and she certainly captured the haunting atmosphere of Victorian society and its emphasis upon the rituals of death and mourning even if she was rather vague on the actual point in the 1800s in which it was set. The running theme of rooks and their role in myth and legend was a highlight of the novel for me.

My issue with the novel was the formality of the style as it made it difficult to engage with Bellman as a main character. It also seemed very harsh that such a small act in childhood should impact so deeply on Bellman's life considering that he was a good man at heart. I wasn't the only one that felt confused by this and I smiled when reading the remarks of The Washington Post's reviewer: "Even PETA’s staunchest activist would recoil in horror from such a thorough retribution, ...".

Although it did have many aspects of the Gothic about it, the sub-title of 'A Ghost Story' seemed misleading as the ghosts seemed more metaphorical while the lurking presence of rooks and the mysterious Mr. Black were more sinister elements. The cover art for the UK print edition was stunning.

I did enjoy reading it but it did not impress me as much as The Thirteenth Tale, her début novel, though that was always going to be a hard act to follow. I borrowed the hardback from the library but did buy the Audible edition and listened to this partly on audio though did read the complete print edition. The audio edition was narrated by Daniel Philpott, who did an excellent job.

'Bellman & Black' on author's website - includes extract, audio excerpt and video trailer.
Tags: gothic novels, historical fiction, myth and legend
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