Title: Bellman & Black – A Ghost Story
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Orion Books, 2013
Reviewer: Nerine Dorman
William Bellman is a dynamic force. From the moment that he takes aim with a catapult and strikes a rook dead at a seemingly impossible distance, his life is defined by precise calculations and risk-taking in business. He proves adept at getting things done efficiently while turning a profit. In fact, every moment of his life, to the last second, is plotted out, with very little room for self doubt.
The rooks frame his existence – birds that travel between this world and the next. They see the bigger picture Bellman doesn’t, while he builds first one business then the next. The birds watch and wait; they understand the inevitability of endings. Bellman spends his entire life ordering his existence yet there is one aspect over which he has no control – death.
The mysterious Mr Black, who may or may not be a figment of Bellman’s imagination, wafts in and out of Bellman’s life, at first noticed primarily at funerals. It is this enigmatic individual who inspires Bellman to expand his business ventures into a mourning emporium. Bellman’s industry is directly proportionate to the tragedy he has endured, and his inability to deal with emotions is quite sad, even if there is a kind of magic and artistry in his methods of establishing a business.
While this novel has no overarching plot, other than Bellman’s obsession with productivity – to the detriment of his relationships with others – there is a beauty in Diane Setterfield’s prose, and how she paints a multi-layered canvas populated with fascinating characters whose brief lives flit in and out between chapters.
At the novel’s conclusion, she holds up a mirror to the reader and we are presented with the inescapability of death. If you love stories filled with exquisite detail that evoke sights and sounds of a bygone era – from the inner running of a mill to finer points such as the jet beads used to decorate mourning couture, then by all means indulge in this masterpiece. Bellman & Black is the sort of story worth returning to, purely for its evocative visuals.