At a Glance: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Book Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield


Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . . Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business. And Bellman & Black is born.

I’m going to keep this brief (ha! that’ll be a first for me!), largely because I’m just not at all sure what to say.

At a loss for words? Without a ready opinion? This really is a first for me.

rooks 1I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about Bellman & Black, and here are the two main points I’ve come up with so far:

1) I found this to be a quick, engrossing read. It zipped along, and I never had to force myself to continue.

2) Every time I tried to talk to my BBB (best book buddy) about B&B (Bellman & Black), all I could say was, “I’m 25%/50%/75% through this book, and I still have no idea what it’s really about.”

So what IS it all about?

It’s about a talented and beloved boy, William Bellman, who seemingly has everything, and grows up with a magical touch for business. Every endeavor he touches seems to thrive. His ideas are golden, his people skills superb. Nothing could be rooks 2better. Yet after a terrible sickness sweeps through his village (scarlet fever, perhaps?) and kills most of his family, he makes a deal — which he doesn’t actually remember — with a mysterious man, and then turns his business acumen to a new enterpise: Bellman & Black, an enormous retail establishment dedicated to death. Bellman & Black specializes in funerary supplies, and succeeds beyond Bellman’s investors’ wildest dreams.

Much of the book is spent in chronicling William’s business skills and ideas. This is a busy, hard-working man. Work becomes his obsession, and he only remembers the mystery man, Black, in bits and pieces. Yet lurking behind all of William’s triumph’s is the sense of a debt to be paid, and sooner or later he knows there must be a reckoning.

rooks 3Rooks — black birds similar to crows — are constantly in the background of the story, and their presence, along with random facts about rooks, pops up repeatedly.

The official title of this book is Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. And I’m not sure why. The rooks represent death, and being haunted by memories, and all sorts of other things (I guess), but I never felt that this was an actual ghost story, other than William being haunted by his forgotten past and all that he’d lost.

It’s odd: This book definitely held my interest, and I was full of admiration for the author’s gift with words. The language is often beautiful, with unusually graceful descriptions and turns of phrase. But at the same time, I spent the entire book at a bit of a loss as far as seeing the point, and never felt like the story gelled in any real way.

Maybe it’s me. Or maybe this is a well-written novel that lacks a certain oomph. Certainly, for a ghost story, you’d expect a scare or two, or at the very least, a sense of growing dread or doom. Yes, there’s an ominous undercurrent — but that’s about it. So perhaps I missed the point in some major, glaring way. But if not, then I’d have to say that Bellman & Black, while beautifully written, doesn’t live up to its billing as a ghost story and doesn’t deliver an ending that’s as full of impact as it’s probably intended to be.

I read it. I enjoyed the reading experience. But I don’t feel touched or enlightened by this book. The books that I love stay with me after I close the covers. This one, despite its many lovely passages, isn’t one of those.

rooks 4

For what it’s worth, I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Even though Bellman & Black wasn’t a peak reading experience for me, I admire the author’s talents enough to want to read her earlier novel, and will probably seek out her books in the future as well.


The details:

Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Atria via NetGalley

Thursday Quotables: Bellman & Black


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her teacups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.

Source: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Atria, 2013

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Click below (next to the cute froggy face) to link up your post! And be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables too.
  • Have a quote to share but not a blog post? Leave your quote in the comments.
  • Have fun!

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper ( somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

From Goodreads:

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise—she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still.

Why do I want to read this?

I’ve had The Thirteenth Tale on my to-read shelf for a few years already, and I still very much want to read it. I’ve heard great things, both from book reviewers and from friends who have read it and recommended it.

I always love books about books, and this novel about a novelist, a biographer, and the uncovering of mysteries and secrets, sounds like something I’d really enjoy. I think I need to bump this one up closer to the top of the TBR list.

Happy Thanksgiving week to one and all! And may all your bookish fantasies come true!

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!