Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

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Storytelling can be a dark art, and never more so when it comes to the telling of a good ghost story. This book follows the life of William Bellman, the first part against the backdrop of the Victorian mill industry and the second through the growth of the funeral trade and the Victorian fascination with death and mourning.

As a little boy Bellman kills a rook whilst out playing with friends. It is a seemingly insignificant event but one that stays with the boys as they grow into men and follow their different paths. Except for William, who becomes an obsessive hard-worker rising up through the ranks of his Uncle’s wool mill, not giving a moment’s thought to the rook. Until that is, tragedy strikes and he diverts all his energy onto another business practice. His efforts are to repay a debt to a stranger named Black. But William does not know what the debt is for, or how to repay it, or even who Black really is. Black only appears fleetingly, yet haunts William’s thoughts. It is the sense of needing to repay Black that drives him relentlessly forward.

Diane Setterfield has written a well-researched historic novel. The reader is taken on William’s journey, from humble beginnings through to wealthy businessman. But there is always something lurking behind him, just out of reach. And it is this element which has earned the book a subtitle of ‘ghost story’. It is not a ghost story in the ordinary sense, and if you are looking for suspense and dramatic thrills then Bellman & Black may disappoint. This is a subtle and unsettling tale, making it that more believable as you question whether there is really anything supernatural at work or whether you are witnessing the troubled mind of a man unsettled by an early experience of an accidental killing. The motif of the rook is woven through the story, linking the pages to a timeless sense of folklore and something almost magical, and the tale is cleverly linked to one of the collective nouns for rooks, a storytelling.

This is a good read for the darkening nights.

This review appeared in The Oxford Times on Thursday 24th October.

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