Bellman & Black

Every once in awhile, I come upon an intriguing book that mystifies and enchants me to the core. I find myself pondering on the words, delighting in the characters, reveling in the splendor of an author’s ability to convey something deep that stirs the heart of the reader. That intriguing book is Diane Setterfield’s ingenious novel Bellman & Black. 

A few posts ago, I wrote about Diane Setterfield’s best-selling novel The Thirteenth Tale. I talked about my admiration for Diane’s writing and her story-telling abilities. When I went to the library this past week, I figured I should try another of her books. She did not disappoint. Although Bellman & Black is not a best-selling novel, it’s as good as the rest of them.

Bellman & Black follows the life of William Bellman as one event changes his future in an unexpected way. The event is simple. While out with his friends one day, William (as a ten year old boy) uses his slingshot to catapult a stone toward a bird that is at a very far distance from him.Thinking it impossible for him to hit the mark, William watches in awe and shame as the rock goes straight for the bird, hitting it instantly and killing it. William had time to shoo the bird away. He could have easily saved its life. But in that split second, he chose to stay quiet and let the bird die in a sheer act of cruelty. Little did he realize the significance about this bird and its kind. The bird was a rook. Throughout the book, Setterfield shares interesting mythology about rooks and their special talents.You see, rooks have the special ability of remembering everything. They, unlike humans, can’t choose to forget. They always, always remember. When you read the book, this will make sense to you. Now William, on the other hand, begins to purposefully forget. Setterfield writes, “…William applied his ten-year-old genius and power to the greatest fear he had ever attempted: forgetting. He very largely succeeded” (8). This becomes a hugely necessary thing to remember throughout the book. Don’t forget it 😉

As William grows up, marries and has children, he also takes on a leadership position at a mill that his grandfather and uncle owned. He is good at what he does. He has a happy life, is making good money and loves his family. Life seems to be working in his favor, but tragedy is on the horizon. Soon a sickness of some sort comes to his hometown, killing many people. William’s own children and wife are lost to it. All that is left to him is his very sickly daughter Dora, but she is almost at the brink of death as well. Strangely, at a funeral, William meets Mr. Black (he never gives his name, but William calls him this through the whole of the book) and makes an odd deal with him. As soon as the deal is made, William awakes the next day, unsure of what it was that Mr. Black wanted. But there’s a strange, new idea creeping into his thoughts. An idea he assumes to be from Mr. Black. An idea so strange, so odd, so necessary, that it grows into a successful business. To save the surprises for you, I won’t mention what the unique business is that William creates. Just know, you will highly enjoy the idea of it all. I won’t say more about the plot. I’ll give away too much. Just read it!!!

As you read the story, you may get so caught up in the strangeness of it all that you forget to look deeper into it. Soon, when the end makes its appearance, you may sit back and wonder what the whole thing meant. Don’t let that happen as I did. I had to go over things a few times and read some reviews on the book to find the hidden meaning beneath the story. It didn’t make itself glaringly obvious, but now that I get it, I could easily re-read the story and understand the whole of it. Just focus on the rooks and their ability to remember. Focus on William and his ability to forget and to suppress all feelings and past memories. Focus on the bigger picture of William’s business venture and the paradox it creates when compared to William’s own dealings with the subject matter the business adheres to. If you still don’t get it at the end, read this extremely perfect, detailed blog by Christine Cavalier ( It’ll open your eyes to all that you missed. When you understand it, it will seem all the more ingenious.

It’s deep and takes you to dark places. There’s a creepy aura that permeates the whole of the book. The entire time I was reading it, I felt there was an impending doom lurking on the next page. That’s all credit to Setterfield’s brilliance as a writer. She makes you feel the character’s feelings. She’s a transportive writer who knows how to move a reader along with her character’s, seeping us into their psyche so deeply, we care for them in a personal and intimate way.

Please read this book, especially if you want to be a writer. There’s so much to glean from Diane Setterfield’s writing ability. I have fallen in love with her work and have added her to my list of favorite authors.

Be puzzled, be perplexed, be enchanted, and soar with the rooks. And always, always remember.

Citation: Setterfield, Diane. Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. New York: Atria, 2013. Print.


2 thoughts on “Bellman & Black

  1. This is a really good review!! I was hesitant about this book because I loved The Thirteenth Tale sooooo much and this one didn’t seem to have as many positive reviews. But now I’m going to reconsider 🙂

    • Do reconsider! I think the only reason it didn’t get rave reviews is because people probably didn’t take time to even get it. It’s a slow pace, but for a writer, this book is an ideal book to read.

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