Bellman & Black (10 October 2013) by Diane Setterfield
English author Diane Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, was a big seller in America, reaching #1 in the charts. I didn't actually know this when I read it: I happened upon it at the library, thought it sounded like my kind of thing, and really enjoyed reading it, although I didn't find it particularly remarkable. Subsequently finding out about Setterfield's huge success in the US made me more interested in the author's next move than I probably would have been otherwise, and when I discovered her second novel would be a ghost story, my interest heightened even further. Now, seven years on from the original publication of The Thirteenth Tale, Bellman & Black is finally here - scheduled for release in October in the UK, and November in the US.
Being a lover of ghost stories - and considering the easy readability of The Thirteenth Tale - I was anticipating the sort of book I would race through in a day or two and wouldn't want to put down. In fact, Bellman & Black gets off to a very slow start and never really picks up. We first meet the protagonist, William Bellman, as a boy: playing with his cousin and two friends, he hits and kills a rook with his catapult. Unbeknownst to him, this childish act is a mistake that will cast a shadow over his life well into adulthood. The narrative steps forward a few years, and we encounter William again as a young man, seemingly in possession of everything he could want in life: he is handsome, charming and, when he joins the family mill, he becomes very successful. The reader knows dark things are coming: this is, after all (and as the subtitle tells us), a ghost story. That being the case - and also considering the fact that the book is called Bellman & Black! - it takes a remarkably long time for true tragedy to befall William and for the mysterious character of Black to make a proper appearance. It isn't until halfway through the book that the key events described in the blurb, the 'bargain' with Black and the creation of the eponymous business, take place - and even after that there's not a lot of action.
I expected this book to be various things, but 'boring' wasn't one of them. Unfortunately, although I thought it was well-written and I can't say I wasn't intrigued by the themes, that was my overall reaction. I never warmed to William or Dora, and was left wondering, what was the point? It's not that I thought this (or any) story should have a specific purpose, necessarily, but I didn't care about the characters and I couldn't see any underlying moral or theme (other than don't do anything to piss off a rook when you're a kid, because it'll ruin the rest of your life...?) so it really needed something else to drive it forward, and there was just nothing there. I felt like I was constantly waiting for something specific to happen, only to be met with another anticlimax. Things kept happening that seemed promising - and then they came to nothing.
I've given Bellman & Black a middling rating because I can't really see any reason to give it less: I didn't actually dislike it, and I enjoyed the style - Setterfield does a good job of creating a narrative that feels authentically 'historical' as opposed to a pastiche, and this story is far less clichéd than her debut - but there was just nothing that great about it. I applaud Setterfield for doing something different rather than just writing a rehash of The Thirteenth Tale, but sadly, it didn't really work for me, and I would be surprised if many fans of her first book enjoy this one as much.
When I read short ghost stories, or novellas within the genre - Susan Hill's Dolly springs to mind as a recent example - I often feel frustrated that they aren't longer, more fleshed out and properly detailed. This is the opposite: stripped back to the basics it would make a fantastic short story, but there is simply not enough substance here to make it worthy of more than 300 pages. While Bellman & Black was by no means a terrible book, I'm reluctant to recommend it to either fans of The Thirteenth Tale or lovers of ghost stories.
I received an advance review copy of Bellman & Black from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 5/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with spoilers!) | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle