Bellman & Black unfolds and blooms like a flower; a dark flower, to be sure, but the progress of the story starts with a small thing – like the first pokes of a sprout in fresh soil – and inches its way up and up and up until a bud forms, then a blossom, and then, of course, the drooping and the end. Is it a ghost story? Perhaps. More of a gothic story, I would say; a work of historical fiction that, while not expressly spooky, is haunting.
As a child, William Bellman launches a stone with his catapult and kills a rook that had landed on a tree branch. It seemed like an impossible thing – the tree branch was much too far and surely the rook would have flown away before he had sufficient time to find a proper stone, load, and launch. And yet, that one seemingly impossible thing sets a precedent for William Bellman’s life. For him, it seems that nothing is impossible or unachievable. Whatever he puts his mind to is a great success and even the horrors of life (the abandonment by his father, the death of his mother, his uncle, his boyhood friends) have only a fleeting impact.
Having made a success of his whole life, William Bellman is unprepared to face the fever that is claiming the lives of so many is his England town. He is especially unprepared to deal with the catastrophic losses of his children and his wife. When he stumbles drunk through the graveyard, his last child dying and his wife’s grave still covered with fresh earth, William Bellman is prepared to take his own life. But a strangely familiar man dressed all in black meets him there and proposes an alternative. From that night on, the darkness overtakes Bellman’s life. He sets forth on a new business venture but there is always the hint of something forgotten and the fear of something unremembered taking everything.
I so enjoyed this creepy novel. I listened to the audio book version, expertly narrated by Jack Davenport. I think that listening to the story unfold creates such a wonderfully vivid image of the events. I could never quite figure out what was dancing around the edges of the tale until the very end, when Diane Setterfield pulls together all of the imagery and foreshadowing. Masterful.
I was, therefore, really surprised to read all of the lackluster reviews on Goodreads. To me, Bellman & Black is a contemporary classic work of historical fiction. I’m glad I listened as part of this year’s FrightFall Read-a-Thon – it set the perfect tone for the themed week focusing on books and reading.