Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield: A right gothic tale

Cover image Forgive me if this review is not the best you’ve ever read here: I’m sliding down the same slippery slope H did last weekend and my head is full of cotton wool but having just finished Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black I need to get my thoughts down before my brain is entirely sodden. It opens strikingly with four boys playing in the Oxfordshire countryside, one with a catapult and an unerring aim takes what seems to be an impossible shot killing a young rook, half wanting to startle it away before the stone hits but anticipating the glory to be won if he stays silent.

William Bellman grows up to be a delightful young man with a mellifluous singing voice. Popular with all, handsome, intelligent and imaginative, he leads a charmed life. His uncle welcomes him into the family mill despite his father’s determined disapproval and Will turns it into a thriving concern. He falls in love and fathers four children but work slowly, but surely, takes him over so that every moment is spent in calculation. Tragedy seems to strike Will more often than most, and a mysterious stranger attends all the funerals. When Will is at his lowest he makes a drunken bargain with the stranger – or at least he thinks he does – one that will have him in thrall for the rest of his life. The result is the setting up of Bellman & Black, a splendid emporium filled with all the finest accoutrements of Victorian mourning. It’s a roaring success which sees Will more and more obsessed, leaving no room for his ailing daughter, his dying friend or himself.

There are no real surprises in Bellman & Black – readers know from the start the way things are likely to go – but it’s a tale well spun and a subtle one which cleverly avoids the pitfalls of bludgeoning its readers with heavy-handed horror. Setterfield’s descriptions are striking and memorable, from the image of the young rook in all his iridescent glory to the descriptions of the sumptuous contents of Will’s emporium. She keeps up a page-turning pace while engaging her readers’ sympathy for Will as he clatters down an ever narrower path. It’s a satisfying read and its ending has an important meaning for us all.

Many congratulations to Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries which I’ve yet to read but am looking forward to, and to Kate Atkinson who bagged The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize for the extraordinary Life After Life. Avid Booker fans will probably already have seen the Guardian’s behind the scenes timeline but others might find it amusing. I’m off to boil the kettle for yet another Lemsip.

4 thoughts on “Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield: A right gothic tale”

  1. I really enjoyed B&B too – especially how she described the emporium. It reminded me a lot of The Night Circus and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, two books I really loved.

  2. Both excellent books. There are some lovely descriptive passages in B&B – I particlarly liked the blackberry bowl. Strikingly poignant.

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