Review: Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story, Diane Setterfield

November 14, 2013 Reviews 0 ★★★½

Review: Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story, Diane SetterfieldBellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
Published by Atria Books on 5th November 2013
Genres: Gothic, Literary Fiction, Paranormal
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Amazon • Amazon UK • Book Depository

Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who "could go to the good or the bad." And indeed, although William Bellman's life at first seems blessed—he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business—one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife's fresh grave—and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William—a mysterious business called "Bellman & Black" . . .


“The mighty and the meek, the rich and the poor, were equal when faced with death: all dabbed their eyes and thought of Bellman & Black.”

I felt I was reading two different stories from two different authors throughout this book. At times I was so bored by the language and the plot that I almost gave into the temptation to skim read (but I didn’t!), while at others the vivid imagery and thoughtful prose took my breath away.

Bellman and Black is the long-awaited second novel from Diane Setterfield, author of the bestselling ‘The Thirteenth Tale’.

It follows the life of William Bellman who, as a boy, unexpectedly kills a rook (blackbird) with a slingshot. This action, mysteriously and inexplicably, connects him to a dark figure that he encounters during moments of great loss throughout his life. One night, when Bellman has lost almost everything he cares about, he strikes a deal with the stranger and together they create Bellman & Black, a business dealing exclusively with death.

The full title of the book is Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story, but this is by no means a traditional ghost story. Yes it is haunting and dark, but Bellman deals primarily with ghosts of a different kind: the ghouls within himself.

I loved the beginning of the book. The opening lines promised something mysterious as you learn the fate that awaits Bellman and his family. The scene where Will kills the bird while his three friends watch on sets a foreboding tone, and I expected to feel this dark presence throughout the novel.

Well, I didn’t.

A quarter of the way through the book and I felt like nothing had really happened. Setterfield goes into meticulous detail around the running of Bellman’s Mill and the construction of the mourning emporium. I had the sense I was reading a ‘how to’ manual on construction and business. The descriptions are too long. Where is the action? Where is the ghost story?

Then, about two-thirds into the novel, the focus shifts. The writing is now contemplative rather than instructive. The language is more lyrical and the ideas more philosophical. Setterfiled explores the concept of time, and Bellman’s need to control it, to conquer it.

Bellman is in the business of death and Setterfield cleverly conveys the evils of this all-consuming profession through various literary devices. For example; the use of colour – black represents bleakness and death, while colour is only reintroduced once Bellman finally and forcibly re-enters the world socially.

The characters are not well developed. But I see them more as concepts, as opposed to actual people.

Overall a good read. It makes you think about the quality of life, the constrictions of time, and of course, could help you run an awesome mill.


Natasha lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and son. She is a self confessed bibliophile who enjoys literature and adult fiction. She also loves travelling and aims to visit 40 countries by the time she is 40 (current count 36).

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