Marie’s Reading: “Bellman & Black” by Diane Setterfield

bellman and blackHaving read and adored Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, I had so been hoping she’d write something else.  Imagine my Snoopy-esque dances of joy when I heard about the imminent publication of Bellman & Black.

I danced just like this.  Sorry there were no witnesses.

It was just like this, my dancing was.

I’m very pleased to report that Bellman & Black is terrific.  It’s got everything that made The Thirteenth Tale so great–compelling storytelling, a Gothic feel, heightening suspense over the course of the story, and a wonderfully done grim atmosphere.  At the same time, this is a story all its own.

As a child, William Bellman accidentally kills a young rook.   From there the book follows his life and relationships in the smallest detail.  We see him as a brilliant businessman, as a husband and father, as a pillar of his community.  And then we follow him through death and loss, from there to more business and a most mysterious partnership.

One stylistic item that I really liked in this novel was that there are two narrators.  Sort of.  Every so often there’s a section of not more than a page or so that’s headed by a large black ampersand.  The font and style changes, and the reader is given a glimpse into the mythology and lifestyle of the rook.  At novel’s end the connection is made explicit, but you’ll probably figure it out on your own.  I’ll also say that this is not a character-driven story.  It’s quite folktale-esque, focused on style and story and atmosphere.   The novel is both about mortality and mortal life, set against the backdrop of Victorian England (as depicted loosely, and more for atmosphere than anything else).

For readalikes, I’d suggest classic ghost and suspense stories.  Setterfield’s work has a timeless, old-fashioned sort of feel.  If you enjoy that style, try The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, or the more modern classics The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  A collection of 19th-century ghostly tales might also be good.  For something more modern, readers might try anything by Kate Morton and John Harwood.

If you like the style, you should certainly try Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

–Marie

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