Review by: Mark Palm
It's been seven years since the "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield was published. I fervently hope that I don't have to wait that long for her next work, because "Bellman & Black " is very good indeed.
I will start with one nit I feel that I have to pick. The novel is subtitled "A Ghost Story." And while this book deals with the concept of being haunted, and loss and memory, I feel that the subtitle may set up expectations of graveyards and moon-lit towers that go unfulfilled. That point aside, this is a book that deals with death and loss, and reminds me of an apt description once used for " The Red Badge of Courage" it feels like a ghost story that is waiting for the ghost.
"Bellman & Black" is the story of the life of William Bellman, from his youth until the end of his days. Ms. Setterfield conjures up the ambiance of a fairy tale through much of this book by her use of detail and a sort of deliberate vagueness as to time and place. Unless my notes are wrong there is never a mention of a definitive time and place, though Victorian England is the best bet.
With rich but balanced prose Ms. Setterfield lets Will's life unfold, from adolescence to manhood. There is an idyllic quality to this part of the book, as one often sees about tales of the countryside, but Ms Setterfiled also shows us the harsh edges beneath. Bellman finds his niche working for a mill and he becomes it's jack- of- all- trades, then its manager. He finally becomes quite smitten with his work, and the mill becomes his life. During this section I learned more about mills than I thought I would ever want to know know, but the details are so interesting, and Ms. Setterfield weaves them seamlessly into the story. Later Will finds love, and a wife Rose. The mill flourishes under his stewardship, as he introduces one innovation after the next. His wife bears four children, and together they become pillars of the community.
I am not going to spoil the plot, but needless to say this is when tragedy strikes. Now before this event, (which I will not reveal) there was strife and death in Will and Rose's life, but it seemed like the grip and slog of regular life. When Ms. Setterfield takes her gloves off, the power of her writing is striking, and we wonder how fate could be so cruel to William. It is in this section that the brief glimpses of the ghostly finally slip into clear sight, and the themes of loss and memory begin to come to the fore. Bellman finds himself taking on a mysterious silent partner and starting a new enterprise: Bellman & Black; a kind of Macy's for funeral supplies, that becomes the biggest shop of its kind. Here Ms. Setterfield does a wonderful job as Bellman, once a man of business, now loses his time, and perhaps his entire self in the endless details of running a massive enterprise .
I have not yet addressed one of the most important parts of this book. Every few chapters Ms Setterfield adds a small section dealing with the history, both natural and supernatural, and the myths and mysteries of rooks. These evocative prose pieces are entertaining, and often quite beguiling; eventually they tie together some of the subtle but crucial themes and motifs of the book. Particularly notable is the section on Huginn and Muninn, the legendary ravens of Norse mythology. Horrific Pun intended, these sections dovetail beautifully in the last pages of the novel, where the long game played by Ms. Setterfield finally pays off, with an ending that is both touching and most important of all, right.
In case you can't tell I highly recommend this book. It's not another "The Thirteenth Tale", but I admire that Ms. Setterfield didn't rest on her laurels, and tried something different. As I said earlier, I just hope the wait isn't as long next time.