Rated Reads

Bellman & Black

by Diane Setterfield

Rated: Mild

OK, I did try not to compare this second book by Diane Setterfield with her first, The Thirteenth Tale. But despite my best efforts, I really couldn’t help comparing my experience reading this long-awaited second book with my experience happily devouring the first, which was an amazing gothic tale with a huge and immensely satisfying twist at the end.

Let’s just say if I didn’t have that other to compare with, Bellman & Black would be a fairly good  book. It’s the story of a man who, as a boy, shot a rook out of a tree with a catapult from an impossible distance. He largely forgot about that childhood exploit, though his friends never did. Setterfield tells readers at the very beginning about that shooting and establishes that it has significance in his life and death. But we don’t know what that significance is through the entire book; it just hangs there.

Meanwhile, William Bellman goes about his life, marrying a woman he loves, having children, running and successfully expanding his family’s mill. But every so often, another family member or friend dies, and each time, he sees a stranger who seems familiar at the funeral or the cemetery. He rarely has a real interaction with him, but he has a nagging feeling about his presence.

When people too close to him die, however, he does talk with Black, and he’s offered an “opportunity.” He starts a wildly successful mourning emporium in London, and the second half of the book focuses on his life running it.

It’s only at the very, very end of the book that Setterfield reveals any story behind the significance of Black and the rook-shooting incident at the beginning of Bellman’s life. And while it’s somewhat interesting, it’s very subtle and definitely not (yes, the comparison) the big twist/payoff that comes in Thirteenth Tale. I am still kind of scratching my head, going back to the beginning of the book, and trying to see if I can really grasp the larger meaning. Perhaps it’s meant to be fairly subtle; perhaps I’m missing something. I am inclined to believe I’d feel this way even without the comparison to Thirteenth. Either way, it’s either a slight letdown or a big one. The book features fine writing and a sufficient sense of foreboding, but it just doesn’t add up quite right.

Rated: Mild, for a few brief sexual scenes and references.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

2 Responses to Bellman & Black

  1. Beth says:

    I just finished this book and was anxious to read your review as I was hoping it would shed some light on the significance of how everything comes together. I very much agree with your review. I’m also “still kind of scratching my head” because “it just doesn’t add up quite right.” Even with the unsatisfactory ending, the storytelling ability of the author made it worth reading.

  • Bellman & Black
  • by Diane Setterfield
  • Rated: Mild
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: