Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield

Did you read The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s debut novel? It came out way back in 2006, which I cannot believe I just referred to as “way back,” and made a big, almost-universally loved splash. And then…nothing. No sophomore novel appeared forthcoming. Now, at long last, we have a second effort from Setterfield. Does it measure up to the first?

Um. Well. See, here’s the thing. I did read The Thirteenth Tale. I clearly remember falling in love with the cover, waiting patiently for it in the library hold queue, finally bringing it home, and reading it in the course of only a couple of days. What I don’t clearly remember is anything at all about the book. I seem to recall the old lady author being kind of mean, and I do remember getting to the ending and having a “What? Boo” reaction. However, I couldn’t tell you what happened at the end. It’s like I have book amnesia.

However, this latest novel promised a ghost story, and I love a good ghost story, so I decided to dive in. Although my total memory loss on The Thirteenth Tale isn’t the strongest endorsement of the author, in both of our defenses, I did read it seven years ago and have read hundreds of other books since then. I gave it 3 stars. I must have enjoyed it at least somewhat.

bellmanBellman & Black

by Diane Setterfield

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, $26.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 147671195X, November 2013

Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who “could go to the good or the bad.” And indeed, although William Bellman’s life at first seems blessed—he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business—one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave—and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William—a mysterious business called “Bellman & Black” . . .

Let me get the complaining out of the way right now: Any time you start calling a book “the perfect [fill in the blank] story,” you’re just opening yourself up for disaster. In this case, the “perfect ghost story” turned out to be long on story, short on ghosts. I love a good family dynamics in a textile mill drama as much as the next gal, but when I hit the 51% mark in my Kindle app and had yet to see a single ghost, I admit I got a bit fidgety. If you’re looking for chills, shivers, spine-tingles, or what have you, this story isn’t for you. If you want to learn about an old-fashioned textile mill and love character studies, by all means, full speed ahead.

Setterfield’s writing is definitely the saving grace. Remember, I actually got over halfway through the story before I said, “Hey, wait, nothing is happening!” Her writing is so good, I read half a novel about a kid who kills a bird and then turns out to be a genius at running a mill before I realized the plot had stalled out long before. I’d love to see what Setterfield could do with an exciting story, but this wasn’t one.

If you love great writing, are extremely patient, and don’t need an enormous payoff, you very well may love this book. If that description didn’t fit you, I’ll save you some trouble and tell you the point of the story right now: No one can get out of dying no matter what bargains they strike.

Yeah, yeah, big revelation, right? Hey, that’s what I said when I finished the book.

Still, Setterfield is a master wordsmith, and I’ll definitely read her next book, which at the current rate should show up around 2020. At least next time I’ll have this review in case I forget everything about Bellman & Black as well.

Anyone else out there suffer from book amnesia?