‘Bellman and Black’ is the latest offering from Diane Setterfield, whose bestselling novel ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ was recently adapted as a TV drama.
At the age of ten, William Bellman makes a perfect shot with a catapult. His target, a rook, falls to the ground. As an adult, William Bellman seems to live a charmed life. His drive, determination and willingness to learn have helped him to make his fortunes and build a happy, healthy family around him. It seems as though nothing can go wrong. But then one horrific, unstoppable incident has a devastating effect on the world that William has created. A chance encounter with Mr Black, and a promise of a business deal made in darkness, casts a shadow over his future that he can never shake off or outrun.
Business wise it seems that he can’t fail. From the mill, where he started his career, to the Bellman and Black emporium of mourning that he creates, William has an unerring sense of how to succeed. He fills every minute of his day in a frenzy of activity, trying to block out the darkness by sheer force of will. But as his life goes on, we end up longing for him to turn the same attentions and intuitions to his personal life.
The shadowy figure of Black is present throughout the entire novel, lurking in the background as an indistinct but threatening presence. We see very little of him, but he fills William Bellman with dread, playing with his sanity and pulling him down towards the edge.
Rooks are another constant throughout the book. One is present everywhere and at every time. They are older than men, a part of the land. Rooks are thought and memory. William’s catapult shot has never been forgotten. Their presence means different things to different people, but for William, they have embodied darkness and incited panic ever since childhood.
Black is the dominant and prevailing colour – it’s the dye in the wool, the rook’s wing, the colour of a business suit, a horse drawn carriage, the night sky and the colour of mourning and death. Together, this helps to create a disturbing gothic undertone, the hint of a ghost story and a rich and pervading atmosphere of mystery and dread. I found it impossible to put down. For me, it was reminiscent of novels like the ‘The Woman in Black’, set in a Victorian age of superstition and suspense, never quite explaining and leaving me with a chill down my spine.