Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first novel – ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ –and when a second novel with an intriguing title appeared after a long wait, my expectations soared. Maybe they went too high because, although I found some things to love, in the end I was disappointed.

18243293A  prologue set the story up beautifully. A group of boys, out playing in the countryside. One has a catapult, he sees a bird, he takes a shot, and the bird falls. Dead.  He moved on, he quickly forgot, but at that moment a shadow was cast over his life.

The senses of foreboding was there from the start, and it was reinforced the recurring images of ravens, and the occasional sighting of a shadowy figure …

The story that follows is built on classic lines. A young man, from humble beginnings, rises in the world. He applies himself, he seizes every opportunity, to achieve his ambitions. And fortune seemed to favour him; obstacles were swept from his path. But at the pinnacle of his success, tragedy strikes. He tries to rise above it. He strikes a bargain, he enters into a partnership, and he sets out on a new path. But he loses sight of what really matters, and that, eventually, causes his downfall.

It’s a fine story, and Diane Setterfield tells it well, her style matching her story quite perfectly. She paints such lovely, such well-chosen, Victorian period details. I was intrigued as I learned how mills worked, and could work; I was fascinated to watch as Bellman and Black explored and exploited the huge potential of the morning business. The atmosphere was wonderful, and so was that feeling of foreboding that never quite went away.

The themes – the growth of industrialisation and the fashion for mourning – are utterly right for the period, and they fit the story beautifully.

But it’s such a pity that the plot is stretched and repetitive, that so many characters and relationships are under-developed, and that many interesting ideas, to one side of the main storyline, were left unexplored. It was maddening because the story, the settings, the descriptions were so vivid, but the understanding, the insight into the people that populated the story was missing. I wanted to care, I wanted to know, I wanted to be drawn in. But I couldn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t.

That might not have mattered if it had worked well as a ghost story, but it didn’t. The raven sequences felt clunky, and the other elements seemed under-developed.

I was captivated by ‘Bellman and Black’ as I read; I saw failings, but there was plenty to hold my interest. It when the story was done I was horribly aware that things had been missing. This might have been an short story, it might have been opened out into a novel with a broader scope. But as it stands, I’m sad to say that it isn’t quite right.

11 responses

  1. Yours is the second review I’ve seen this week that felt it wasn’t quite right. I must say I didn’t really warm to The 13th Tale, and I don’t think I’ll bother with this one. As her first novel was a homage to Jane Eyre, I did wonder whether this one was Poe with the raven?

  2. I’ve not yet read anything by this author, but your review led me to look up what the Thirteenth Tale is about — wow! It looks great! Luckily they have a (hardback!) copy at PaperBack Swap so I requested it. Thank you for bringing that book to my attention (though I’m sorry that Bellman & Black didn’t knock your socks off).

  3. How frustrating – I also really loved The Thirteenth Tale (and I’m pretty picky about modern novels!) but this one sounds like it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. I’ve found that before with second novels (Donna Tartt springs to mind) so I think I shall give this a miss for the time being!

  4. It didn’t work for me at all. Such a disappointment as I loved The Thirteenth Tale. It read like a padded out short story. Did I mention how disappointed I was??!! 😉

  5. I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale and was looking forward to another Diane Setterfield book, but it seems a lot of people have been disappointed by this one. I’m probably still going to read it, but I’ll try not to expect too much from it.

  6. I was very disappointed with this too. I made it to around the halfway point before I decided that I didn’t care enough to reach the end. It’s such a shame, because I was expecting something marvellous after ‘The Thirteenth Tale’, and the rather long stretch of time between the publication of both books. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it either!

  7. You sound just like me with this review. I LOVED The Thirteenth Tale and then I was so disappointed with this. For some reason I thought that it just didn’t come together in the end. : /

  8. The Thirteenth Tale is such a good book that I think it gave us all such high expectations for this one. I didn’t dislike it but it wasn’t what I expected.
    Lynn 😀

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