A ‘ghost’ story perhaps, but not in the usual sense.
First Published: 10th October 2013
Date Reviewed: 23rd November 2014
At ten years of age, William Bellman strikes a rook with a stone and a catapult. He’s a little chilled by the experience; as the stone flies forward he wants to warn the rook but can’t. And life goes on. William isn’t to know that the experience will never truly leave him, but he may not see what is happening.
Bellman & Black is a literary novel of a certain, rather unique kind, in that the story isn’t obvious and the writing style differs to many others. Setterfield speaks in the third person from an almost personal point of view yet the writing itself is almost scarce – almost bullet-pointed in style. The book is an echo of Dickens – his voice, the uncanny, spooky, way he seems to be speaking just over your shoulder at times, and a similar darkness when things become creepy (yes, darkness and creepy even when they can be one and the same). The basic themes are of time and working rather than living – missing out. There is a worthy link to be made with Scarlet O’Hara’s rescheduling of everything for tomorrow morning.
Something that needs to be said straight away is that Setterfield is never quite clear about what is happening, or, rather, why such a thing is happening. There’s a meaning, a message, in this book, but you’ll possibly have to dig very deep to find it and it’s beyond the normal thought of interpretation. Part of this is, sadly yet understandably, due to the subtitle of ‘a ghost story’. Bellman & Black is not a ghost story or, if it is, then again it’s not at all clear.
There are sections throughout that deal with rooks, that speak of rooks in a particularly familiar way as the author speaks directly to the reader, but this is yet again vague. It’s as though Setterfield has provided pieces of the puzzle for the reader to put together and work out, which isn’t unusual in literature and can result in some amazing revelations, but unlike other authors, Setterfield has forgotten to give you the last few pieces. Maybe the individual interpretation is the whole point, but even if it is, there needed to be more to use.
The book is far more about character than plot, indeed unless you’ve an interest in retail history or business you may find the repetitions of workaholic Bellman a bit dull, however you will no doubt see the reasoning for it. Setterfield repeats herself to the extreme so you want to be prepared for that. If you are interested in retail history – the television show Mr Selfridge comes to mind – you’ll likely want to keep reading beyond the end. There is also a fair amount about the workings of a mill – whether it’s earlier than the industrial revolution is something that’s in itself fun to work out.
As for the character development, Setterfield has settled for something in between realism and fantasy, as is of course obvious from the first few pages. It’s both fast and slow – Bellman becomes who he will be very quickly yet the result of this only begins to be revealed later on. The secondary characters are not fleshed out as much as you might hope because, put simply, the book isn’t about them. They are there to show you what Bellman is missing. They are stereotypes and cardboard cut outs to give you a quick idea of what Bellman leaves behind when he’s at the office, so that you’ve a good understanding of what he could have and also a good understanding of how his friends and family are likely to feel.
As said, the placement is vague. The book is obviously historical but there are no dates given, no countries (at least for Bellman). It does become clear as the book carries on as elements of a certain period are brought into play. The vagueness allows for a certain quality – left to your own devices you are able to concentrate on Bellman rather than the history and Setterfield can get on with her narration without too much detailing. There is enough detailing to set the scene and that is it. The superfluous is down solely to the repetition and as that is up for contention that’s no bad thing. The lack of dates also allow Setterfield to illustrate how her themes are eternal. (Themes are one thing and clear enough, it is the message that is less clear.)
Bellman & Black makes for a fair read. It’s enjoyable, the writing is intriguing, beautiful, almost, and there is just suspense enough that you’ll want to continue. Just don’t hope for too much – enjoy the ride as it is without expectation but realise that due to the lack of information you may not actually feel like spending time mulling over the content afterwards. Your reading will be, much like it’s theme, very much in the present with no thought of the future.
November 24, 2014, 1:29 am
This is a tough book to write about, but I think you’ve captured it very well. I was definitely disappointed when I read it, but likely because my expectations were a bit skewed.
November 24, 2014, 6:44 am
I meant to read it years ago but never did
November 24, 2014, 9:03 am
I saw this recommended somewhere recently as an excellent ghost story, so now I’m puzzled. Perhaps the only answer is to read it myself :)
November 24, 2014, 9:51 am
I’m glad you’ve got so much out of the book, Charlie. I found it disappointing, especially compared to her last novel, but I put that down to Bellman and Black being such an utterly different book. For me, the character wasn’t enough to keep me interested through the mundane plot.
November 24, 2014, 1:02 pm
I agree that the other characters aren’t well fleshed out, although his group of friends (the boys who were there when he shot the raven) are available–we would learn more of their stories if he would just be more interested. His daughter is the same way–we could learn more about her if he wasn’t afraid to spend time with her.
November 24, 2014, 9:09 pm
I read this last year and my thoughts on it were very similar to yours. I agree that describing it as a ghost story is a bit misleading. Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, was much better than this one, in my opinion.
November 26, 2014, 1:15 am
Uncanny, spooky, creepy yeah those all scream to me!
November 28, 2014, 9:29 pm
This sounds like an interesting story, but I really like worldbuilding and find it very frustrating when the rules of the world the author is creating and the reasons that things are happening are unclear, so I’m not sure this would be a good choice for me! I’m glad you ended up having an enjoyable time reading it, even if it ended up being only an ok book.
December 8, 2014, 4:12 pm
Christine: It is tough – I’m kind of glad you’ve said it because I was wondering if it was just me, there are some great reviews out there. I know I expected a ghost story so I imagine adding to that knowledge of The Thirteenth Tale must have had quite an impact.
Blodeuedd: If the time between it and the previous book is anything to go by, you’ve plenty of time ;)
Maryom: It *could* be a ghost story but that interpretation relies on the reader being happy with vagueness and the feeling that you could be overthinking it.
Alice: I got a lot out of it in general but it was disappointing in its way. I can understand that; I know I had to realise I wasn’t going to like him much in order to keep going. I did consider putting it aside at one point.
Jeanne: That’s very true, his interest just as much as Setterfield’s writing plays a role there.
Helen: It is. I wonder if it would have been better received if ‘ghost story’ had been left out (forgetting for a moment the difference betwenen it and her previous).
Tabitha: It is that but not all that much – best to approach it with low expectations :)
Katie: There’s a fair amount of… specific worldbuilding I guess you could call it. Nothing on the outside. The writing style, whilst different, helped it, in my opinion.