PJV Quickie: BELLMAN AND BLACK was one of those titles that I’m glad I did in audiobook version, not because the narrator blew me away, but more because I probably would not have been able to stick it out in printed form. While the book was atmospheric and the setting was interestingly portrayed, the author went into minute detail about a lot of intricacies of Victorian life. Interesting at times, but it could make for a read that drags for most.
Review: As a highly anticipated title, BELLMAN AND BLACK: A GHOST STORY wasn’t as well-received by myself as I would have hoped. I enjoyed the writing and the story, I thought William Bellman was a great tragic character, but I was hoping for a little more progression in the novel, which I never received. The book is also titled “A Ghost Story” and maybe I’m daft, but where was the ghost?
The story follows the life of William Bellman from childhood to old age. William Bellman starts out as a life-loving, highly intelligent boy, with a knack for business which he discovers when he begins assisting his Uncle in the family mill. The underlining story though, begins when William is 11 and kills a Rook with a catapult. A meaningless death, just to show that he can kill a bird with his great catapult. Even though William did not expect to hit the black bird, it tumbles from the tree dead. Throughout the entire story, the author preludes each chapter with description of rooks, painting them as intelligent almost mystical animals, with long memories. That death of the rook “haunts” William until his last days.
In the beginning of his life, William is extremely well-set in his life, beautiful wife, lots of children, turning profits at his mill like no other. But then people around him begin dying, one by one. At each funeral there is a man, who he later discovers is named Black. When the deaths get closer and closer to him, his wife, his children…William is ready for his own death, but is met at his wife’s grave by Black, with a proposition.
This ushers in the next part of the book, where we are faced with a driven, depressed main character who is set to focus all of his resources and intentions into the creation of a mourning good stores, called Bellman & Black.
I’m assuming the ghost in the story was Black, was he the rook that he killed, or I believed he might be death himself, or even could the ghost be Bellman himself? Was he haunted by all the deaths that he experienced? The novel was a bit disjointed at times. Bellman at moments was a strong driven business man, at other times he was a messy pile of mental illness. The author would introduce characters with hopeful up-turns of plots, but then nothing would come from them. I believe the main intent of the novel was to describe business of Victorian era, from the intricacies of the mill in the first part of the novel, to the vast insanity of all the mourning goods that were sold within the “big-box” type environment of Bellman & Black.
There is no doubt about it though, Diane Setterfield is a very talented story-teller. Her sentences flow like water as she paints each setting within her novel. This is one of those fiction novels that you learn as you are entertained. I was impressed by the depth of research she must have done to deliver this novel, even though I wished she would have crafted her plot a little better. Most readers enjoy character formation and a final culmination with all loose-ends revealed and this didn’t happen in BELLMAN AND BLACK. Not to mention the abstract ghost story, that might lead to readers being confused or have a feeling of being misled. You read Ghost Story and you believe, well that there is a haunting.
Other then that, the narration by Jack Davenport was delicious, he had a wonderful accent and he aided in the dark, atmosphere of the novel. I’m again, glad I got this one on audiobook, not just for the narration, but also because I think it carried the story better.
Recommendations: If you have read Diane Setterfield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE, this novel is not quite like it. It share’s Setterfields writing quality, but that is the only similarities. It is very different. BELLMAN AND BLACK felt like it was trying to be books like THE WHITE QUEEN and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, so I should probably compare it to those novels. Even though, it was in the merchant class setting so it didn’t have that royal, political flavor, which a lot of the Historical, Magical Realism type novels tend to be set within. This is an adult novel, but there is nothing that is inappropriate for younger readers that want to expand their repertoire outside of Young Adult novels.