I finished Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, a couple of days ago, and felt like I needed to let it percolate a bit before I wrote about it.
The story opens with a group of early Victorian era, English boys playing in a field. The action of the scene as well as the book focuses on William Bellman, a ten year old with a fantastic slingshot, unless you are British, and then, it’s a catapult. William uses his catapult to shoot a young rook (crow) off a branch at an incredibly long distance. The other boys are impressed, but William feels bad about the entire incident, falls ill, and when he is better, has forgotten all about it.
The rest of the book tells us William’s tale. We learn that he lives with his mother in a little cottage because his father abandoned them. William is handsome, has a beautiful singing voice, and the girls love him, but it seems that he is never going to amount to much. The girl that he has been seeing, that he seems to care for, tells him that she has her heart set on his friend Fred, the baker, because he is steady and she doesn’t want to struggle. William then works his way into the mill with his uncle and embarks on a very successful career as a mill owner. His life is a good one, until tragedy takes almost everything from him.
At the last moment before the final crisis that will completely destroy the life he has made for himself, he speaks with a mysterious man dressed in black that always seems to be lurking whenever something bad happens in William’s life. They strike a deal of sorts, and the last remaining thing in his life is restored to him. Following this miracle, Bellman and Black, an emporium catering to the Victorian obsession with death, funerals and mourning is born.
The reason I had to digest this book a bit is because I had a really hard time pinning it down. At first, I thought it was going to be a horror story. But it wasn’t. Then, I thought it was going to be a good old-fashioned Gothic mystery. I wasn’t, but it was. I thought that the rooks were going to terrorize him for killing one of their own. They kind of did, but they didn’t. Then, I thought it was a cautionary tale about becoming too self-involved, which it actually was, but at the same time it was not. I kept waiting to dislike William, I kept waiting for him to do something heinous, but I liked him and he didn’t. I kept waiting to find out who the hell gave a crap about the rooks and what their purpose was, and finally at the end, I found that out, and the book once again teetered on horror/gothic mystery. SO, it was a little bit confusing, a little bit literary (which means it forces you to think about the story and not just blindly enjoy it), a little bit spooky, and a whole lot entertaining.
If you are in any way into Victorian era death, or just good life stories, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Although it will try to force you to think about it, don’t think about it too much. Just read it, enjoy it, and don’t try to figure it out. It is very well written, so it’s easy to read. It has just the right amount of artistry about it to make it interesting without being pretentious, and some of her descriptions are downright poetic, which when done properly, as they are here, add to reading enjoyment. So while you are shivering in the cold that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, download it on your NOOK, or hop out to the bookstore and grab a copy, get a cozy blanket, a warm drink and maybe a cat for your lap and enjoy.
Have a great day and spend part of it with a great book 🙂