Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield


Rating – 4 stars.

Since I cannot quote anything from the book, I am resorting to the great Edgar Allan Poe to help me describe in a few words the essence of this book:

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!

– The Raven.

Reading certain books, having certain experiences sometimes leaves you with a feeling that is indescribable. It’s not that there are no words to surmise the entirety of what you felt or thought but rather that there could be so many ways to say things and yet not have any idea of what to say or how to say it.

It’s the same experience that I had with this book.

Browsing the titles on Netgalley I came across this fascinating cover that caught my eye and I paused for a moment to look at it. Its how I came across ‘Bellman & Black’. The first thing I noticed after the gorgeous cover and the title was that it’s a Diane Setterfield book.  Not so long back, however not exactly recently I had read Diane’ debut novel – The Thirteenth Tale; and enjoyed it  immensely. So with my curiosity now piqued I read the synopsis and requested an ARC and soon received an approval for the same.

Truth be told, I am still not sure how to surmise this book, if anything its an odd little cookie. It’s  described as a creepy ghost story  – but it’s not; not in the conventional sense of the term. Ghosts can take many forms, be any number of things that may haunt us. It necessarily may not be a spirit that has not yet attained salvation, it may be sometimes a feeling of a deep, dark, lingering secret which refuses to leave us. It may not be visible at all the times but it’s there, somewhere in the back of our mind. Waiting, taunting, torturing, lingering, haunting us.

It’s a similar case here.

William Bellman, the protagonist of this book is a man haunted by his past, an act committed in the bravado of childhood tomfoolery leaves an indelible mark on the rest of his life.

It’s not as if he has committed a crime. Not really. But he has sinned.

As a boy of 10 years in arrogance that makes him feel wise and mature beyond  his years, in the presence of peers he commits an act that will mark the descent of his innocence. For he sheds blood. He kills.

A rook, a crow or a raven – these are all such ordinary birds, you hardly pause to give them a second look. You hardly acknowledge their presence. You really don’t need to seek them out, they are just there, always there no matter what and you never even think to spare a moment to have a thought about them.

But these birds of prey, these scavengers they always pause, they always look and they always notice.

Recognized as some of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom these humble creatures with no special attributes and no striking beauty also hold place among  gods in most of the ancient cultures of the world. There may perhaps be no faith or religion that in some context or the other does not recognise their presence. Most of the cultures also associate these birds with death and consider their arrival ominous in certain situations.

I don’t claim to know the folklores or myths or tales associated with all of them, as there can be so many but I do know this – that in my country – in Indian culture – they play a significant role. According to the ancient Hindu beliefs crows act as the link between the dead and the living. During the days of  Shradh;  an offering of food is made to crows so they can take it to our dead relatives.

While most of the myths and beliefs may vary with each culture, one theme perhaps has a universal appeal among them. Never ever harm or hurt or in any way injure a crow or raven or a rook. Let alone kill them. 

In Setterfield’ Bellman & Black, the act of killing a rook though not with any malice or foul intention of any kind taints William Bellman. Even those who stand witness to his act and later make a plaything of the carcass are in some degree not exempted from the repercussions of the act; they too are held accountable for their crimes. They too suffer, befitting their roles as accomplices.

But the one who unequivocally is fated to suffer the most is William, the abandoned son of a father who was in turn shunned by his own father, raised solely by his loving mother Dora. 

William is not essentially a twisted character or in any way out of the ordinary however what happens to him is eerie. He loses one by one all the people who have ever mattered in his life until he is left with nothing but fortunes that keep rising and graves of those loved by him.  Of all but one. He is left with his daughter Dora, named after his mother; but even she is more dead than alive. More frail than most and in a way cursed to have a life at all.

Death surrounds him and he is engulfed by it, in more ways than one. When finally he is too shrouded to the depths of his very soul by it ; he makes a living out of it. From a hard-working mill worker to an industrious and prosperous mill owner he becomes the owner of a funeral parlor. Much like how ravens or crows or rooks feast on carrion.

It’s sheerly mesmerizing to witness how William slowly but steadily finds his world, once full of colors, fall prey to the black when nothing but black remains around him from the deepest shades to the lightest tints. 

Setterfield is at her enchanting best as she narrates William’ ruin with such eloquence that even this tale of doom and misery is so seductive that you cannot help but be drawn to it, immerse in it. Undoubtedly one of the most amazing books I have come across this year. 

Recommended definitely for those looking for an unusual eerie read. 

I was provided an advance readers copy for  reviewing courtesy of Atria books and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review of the book. This review is in no way influenced and is solely based on my opinion.


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