Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

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Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Never for one moment believing that he could, a young boy kills a rook and the echoes of this action will colour the rest of his life. Like the best ghost stories you're bever quite certain what is and what isn't a ghost.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 978-1409128014

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When he was a young boy William Bellman committed one cruel act - he used his catapult to kill a rook. He didn't believe he could do it - believed until the moment that the rook fell that it would fly away before the stone hit - but the rook was dead. It can't be said that the killing worried William and as he grew it seemed that he was a fortunate man. His work satisfied him. He loved his wife and his children, but then tragedy struck and the visits from the stranger in black began. William - now 'Bellman' to most of those who knew him - had a solution. He worked harder, obsessively and he founded a business which was decidedly macabre. And that business was Bellman and Black.

The story's set in the second half of the nineteenth century and the setting's pitch perfect, from the woollen mill which William works in and then runs, to the Victorian approach to death and its rituals. The attitudes are spot on - and there's just a hint that things might be changing, that all might not be as it is for much longer. And then there's William Bellman, who dominates - who is - the story.

When he killed the rook you could almost feel sympathy for him. He didn't seem bad - it was more that he got caught up in something and you're rather relieved when he seems to be living a good life - singing in the choir, courting, working hard and then making a good marriage in the sense that it was a love match, which produced four happy, intelligent children. But then - in the way of life and particularly life at this time - there was tragedy and it wasn't just one tragedy but several. He'd weathered deaths before but this time death caught him on the quick and what he was left with was very precarious. Bellman turned to the only solution he knew - hard work - and made his bargains. The happy young man was no more.

It's an excellent story which kept me turning the pages right to the end, but I wasn't entirely convinced by the device of the rook which is woven through the story from the unfortunate bird of the opening few pages, through drawings, flights of the birds and even a picture hidden under a bed. It's a minor quibble though in an otherwise very good book. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

We greatly enjoyed Diane Setterfield's first book. For more from Victorian London, you might enjoy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling.

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