Review: Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield

As a child, William Bellman makes one tragic mistake that will haunt him all his life. Though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, William soon finds out what a big deal it was.

William is showing off for a few of his friends. He has perfected his slingshot and to impress his friends he claims he can hit a rook (of the raven family) with absolute precision.

When he kills the bird with that fateful shot, he has no idea it will be the mistake that alters his life and the lives of those present that day forever and those that William cares for most.

The Bellman family has done quite well for itself over the years. They are widely known for their textile mill throughout the country side. When William reaches adulthood, his uncle takes him under his wind and start showing him the ropes of mill operation.

His uncle’s own son has zero interest in the running of the mill so that means that when the uncle dies the mill for go to his son but he will need a trusted advisor to run it for him.

So he beings training William who has already shows he has a shrewd eye for business. William turns into a savvy and successful businessman practically over night. But then things start happening. It starts with his grandfather’s passing, then his mother, then his uncle.

At every funeral, a man in black shows up. A man no one knows and William suspects that only he can see. This man taunts him, almost driving him mad.

Soon his uncle’s son returns from abroad to settle things with the mill and finalize William’s role. Soon he too also dies leaving William the mill all for himself. Soon all is going well for William. He is rich, successful, and he has a family. But soon his wife and kids fall ill and die as well…..he has lost all but one: his daughter.

The man in black appears to him again before his daughter dies and William enters into a strange agreement with him to save her life. But what will this agreement with Mr Black really cost him?

This tale is described as a ghost story and while it is that, I thought it could have used a little most suspense. I thought there was a lot of build up to the actual meeting with Mr Black….a lot of foreshadowing and foundation laying but it seemed to take a little too long.

The beginning of the novel was very in depth but for me not a lot happened. The man in black made appearances and there was a lot of spectral innuendo made to him but I was hoping for something a little less subtle and a lot more bold. I hoped with the death of his childhood friend in the mill, that the ghostly haunting and suspense would pick up significantly but it didn’t.

For a ghost story, the first half of the novel lacked a lot of the tension it needed to keep me as a reader interested. There was a lot more focus on the family and it’s back story than the haunting itself so perhaps I would market the book not as a ghostly tale but as a haunting family saga instead.

The second half of the novel picked up a bit and I found that I was more engaged in the overall story but I never felt ‘terrified’ or ‘scared’ by the tale like I had hoped. With is being markets as a ghost story I was hoping for a really really bone chilling read for Halloween but this one fell a little short for me.

The facts about the rooks though out the book were unnecessary for me. It did provide some interesting facts about the bird but overall I found it more distracting than anything. Maybe short facts at the top of each chapter might have been more effective but the lengthy facts that were more like short chapters I thought was unnecessary to the overall story.

I think that thing I liked most about the book though was William. I never really liked him and never really felt at ease with him as a reader. I thought this distrust of him as a character was what Setterfield was going for from the beginning and I liked that I was also a little weary of him….that enhanced the creepy feel for me.

I liked Setterfield’s style of writing. It was ghostly and dark though at times it was a little thick, but that was of course true to the period. I thought it flowed nicely (besides the parts about the rooks) and over all the story unfolded well I just expected more terror and suspense in the story.

This story had a lot of potential, it could have been so much better than it was. I was hoping for a stronger ghost story but I came away feeling like I read more of a family saga with some macabre bits thrown in.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield

  • ebook, 224 pages
  • Expected publication: November 5th 2013 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books (first published October 10th 2013)
  • ISBN 147671200X (ISBN13: 9781476712000)
  • Review copy provided by: Publisher in exchange for an honest review

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3 out of 5

Genre: Historic fiction, ghost story, thriller, suspense, Victorian lit, Gothic lit

Memorable lines/quotes: 

The past had no hold on him. Perhaps that’s why his vision of the future was so strong.

The desire to do something well is a good indicator of talent.

People got lost in their own doubts. With a strong objective in mind, success well within reach they hesitated and pondered, fretted over minutiae, and in the time they lost, the whole project was sunk.

Details always sorted themselves out in the fullness of time.

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