One of the best things I love about Ireland is the abundance of bookshops. Every time we go back to visit Rob’s family I always leave with more books than I brought. This causes real back pain and shoulder problems when we have to lug our bags around the airport on the way home, but never mind, it’s worth it!
This Christmas when browsing on of the bookshops in Dun Laoghaire my heart leapt when I spotted this book with the name Diane Setterfield gleaming on the front cover.
At last! The author of what has become one of my most treasured books, The Thirteenth Tale has written her second novel. For those unfamiliar, The Thirteenth Tale is a gothic tale of sisters, secrets, mysterious deaths and madness all set in a crumbling English manor house. If you have any love of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights or any ghost story you will love The Thirteenth Tale.
For what has felt like the longest time, The Thirteenth Tale has been the only work from this extraordinary storyteller, so I was very excited to see that this was no longer the case.
Bellman & Black is another gothic and macabre novel. The Synopsis is as follows:
As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that appears to have unforseen and terrible consequences. The killing of a rook with his catapult is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. And by the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, he seems indeed, to be a man blessed by fortune.
Until tragedy strikes, and the stranger in black comes, and William Bellman starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, he enters into a bargain. A rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business.
And Bellman & Black is born.
First things first, this is a very different story than The Thirteenth Tale. It is different in structure, in style, and in emphasis. Once you let go of the comparisons you can enjoy Bellman & Black for what it is instead of getting annoyed at what it is not.
So what is it? It is the story of a man whose inability to grieve catapults him straight into the lucrative business of mourning told by an author who is a captivating storyteller.
Although the book is a novel it reads a bit like a parable. Great events and tragedies that would make the bulk of another stories narrative barely get a passing note in this book, but that is kind of the point. William Blackman detaches himself from his loved ones and especially from the ones who perish and to do so he throws himself into the minute detail of his work, as readers we are pulled along in the currents of William’s interests, away from the births, marriages and deaths and towards book-keeping and shades of black lace.
This does mean that there is a lot of time spent describing the inner workings of a cotton mill and later on, we see how William secures the finances, suppliers and staff to open the country’s first Mourning Emporium; a luxury department store to meet every need of the recently bereaved.
By chance the next book on my reading pile is a biography of Harry Selfridge who I now realise must have been a big influence on creating the ambitious nature of William Blackman. It has been interesting to read of two different entrepreneurs one after the other, even if one is a fictional character!
Aside from the business side of the tale there is also a Gothic element. However you interpret the ending of the story which I will not discuss in more details, I think that all readers will agree that William is a haunted person. Haunted by memories, by the truth, by loss, by black birds staring in the window and of course by Mr Black!
The book does have its frustrations; there are so many interesting characters introduced and yet they only make fleeting appearances before they get left behind or more often than not, killed off! I would have loved to have spent more time with the drunken Luke, or the gentle Charlie and I certainly wanted to know more about Dora and her life. But you have to give credit to Setterfield that she can create such full characters out of just a couple of paragraphs. I would have liked to have heard more about them but I actually did have all the information I needed to know who they were.
I don’t think Bellman & Black will be as widely liked as The Thirteenth Tale was, but for myself I really enjoyed this read. It filled every spare moment of my time for a few days and it left me with that sad feeling I get whenever I have finished a book that I really enjoyed, that ‘it’s over’ feeling.
I also suspect that I will get more from it on a second reasi