Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black

  • Genre
    • Drama, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of William Bellman, 19th century English entrepreneur, starting with the day when he was ten years old and killed a rook. On that day, he attracts the personal interest of Mr. Black, a man with a strange connection to death itself. That interest, for good and for bad, will follow William through every joy and every tragedy of his life.
  • Character Empathy
    • These is another of those books where even the minor characters get unexpected layers. The main characters, meanwhile, are some of the most nuanced and engaging that I’ve ever read. William is a great protagonist; bright, warm hearted and gifted, yet relatably flawed. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It has a richness of language and theme, a luxurious pace that doesn’t get boring, and a naturally developed Victorian countryside setting. I discovered Diane Setterfield a year or two ago, and she immediately became a favorite. Her books make me feel like I’m reading Wilkie Collins or Jane Austen back when they were first published. That is, I don’t feel like I’m reading a modern author mimicking classic literature. I feel like I have been transplanted back into the 19th century, and am reading something contemporary in the past. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This book is full of death, but it’s not a depressing book. It’s a book about a brilliant man who can conquer nearly everything, except death. It’s about how that can destroy you, but also how rich and beautiful life is between birth and death. It’s about hope and rebirth as much as death and decay.
    • The magical elements are ambiguous without pretension. I love some mystery in my fantasy, but in so many books, the mystery doesn’t conjure up a sense of wonder so much as an image of the author wiggling their fingers and saying, “woo-oo-ooo-ooo!” Not so here. In this book, everything is warm and happy and logical until suddenly it’s not, because that’s death. It’s not mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It’s mysterious for the sake of being honest about the thing that takes us all by surprise.
    • Sections are broken up with passages on the biology and mythology of corvids, told by an anonymous narrator. It’s creepy and fascinating and cool as fuck. 
    • Most of these I review after one read, but this is one I re-read within a few months, and caught approximately three thousand things I missed the first time around. I already want to read it again.
    • A minor gay character who is really likable and has a moderately happy life. It ends eventually, but for once that doesn’t feel like gay erasure. It’s just that the entire point of this book is that, eventually, all lives end.
  • Content Warnings
    • One attempted suicide. Lots of deaths, mostly not graphic.
  • Quotes
    • “The rook is a skilled survivor. He is ancient and has inhabited the planet longer than humans. This you can tell from his singing voice: his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute, and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers, and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself.”
    • “His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her tea cups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.”
    • “People remembered. They wept and they grieved. In the spaces between, they were glad that the leeks were doing well this year, envied the bonnet of the neighbor’s cousin, relished the fragrance of pork roasting in the kitchen on Sunday. There were those that registered the beauty of a pale moon suspended behind the branches of the elms on the ridge.”
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