When I heard that another book by Diane Setterfield was coming out, I was really excited, having enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale immensely. Although the previous novel was about a teller of fables, I enjoyed other aspects of the novel more than the fables themselves. Bellman & Black is actually an extended fable with a vaguely 19th century setting rather than a more traditional novel, and as such, I did not enjoy it as much.
William Bellman is a capable boy, liked by all, with a golden future. But one day when he is fooling around with his friends, he takes what seems to be an impossible shot with his slingshot and kills a rook without actually intending to. The boys go to bury the rook but end up desecrating it instead. They have no idea how these actions will affect their futures.
Bellman goes on to work at his uncle’s mill, where he proves himself more than capable and earns his uncle’s trust. He begins a career that eventually brings him great wealth, and his attention to the details of his enterprises is phenomenal. In his personal life, however, he is not so lucky, as he loses most of those closest to him to death. After a particularly wrenching loss, he is so grief-stricken that he can barely function, and at that point he makes a bargain with a Mr. Black, the details of which he can’t quite remember.
As I mentioned before, the story is told as an extended fable, in the style of a folk tale. Most of the characters are emblematic of a single characteristic rather than fully developed. Even Bellman, in his single-mindedness, seems one-dimensional. The writing is gorgeous and replete with detail, the setting atmospheric. It is easy to imagine the scenes Setterfield describes, but her characters remain enigmas.
Periodically, a chapter ends with a few paragraphs about rooks, their appearance, habits, mythology. When we are told that the rooks in the tree by Bellman’s house are descended from the rooks in Norse mythology named Thought and Memory, this information is vital for understanding the story.
Even at the end of the novel, I did not feel I fully understood everything about the bargain Bellman made. In any case, beautifully written as the novel is, I sometimes found my attention wandering.