A Life of Death: A review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

How vast London was. How great the extent of its housing and commerce and population. There was not a living soul in the city, not so far as the eye could see, who would not at some point have need of the goods and services provided by Bellman & Black. He looked out, turning slowly, in all directions. Birds were sweeping and diving in the darkening sky and beneath them, streets of houses stretched in all directions, grand and modest and impoverished. In one of those houses, in Richmond say, a fellow would be sneezing, right at this very moment. Just as in Mayfair someone was shivering. In Spitalfields, a tainted oyster was slipping down someone’s throat, and in Bloomsbury someone was pouring the glass that would prove one glass too many and…oh, it was endless. They would come all right. Sick today, dead tomorrow and on Thursday Bellman & Black would open its doors to the bereaved. It was an enterprise that could not fail.

This is the tale of William Bellman. William Bellman is a man of prospect. He works hard to achieve the best he can in everything he does. He is a man of business. A high flyer and a workaholic, utterly dedicated to his job; a job that is much more to him than a means to an end – it is an opportunity to reach perfection. He’s a brilliant problem solver, transforming everything he touches to gold. He’s a series of success stories. Yet, it is not a happy tale. Yes, indeed, William Bellman has it all, but life is such that, in a blink of an eye, all can change. Not everything can be weaved to your own will, not everything can be mapped out or predicted. Some things can’t be solved.

Diane Setterfield’s second book, after the much loved The Thirteenth Tale, is a story about death. There’s no escaping it – death permeates every line, every page. It’s almost oppressive and certainly gets under your skin. Like The Thirteenth Tale, it is beautifully told with the same richness of prose, but also the same hint of woefulness and distance. There’s no happy-go-lucky here, and even from the onset, when events are to be celebrated, there’s an underlying distress. An impartiality in the storytelling adds to this creation of distance; the protagonist is rarely referred to as just William – it’s always William Bellman, or Mr Bellman or simply Bellman. We are willed to feel separation, yet it’s this separation that piles on the sadness we feel. It’s a piece of dark Victorian Gothic, and we are wholly immersed into a powerfully haunting story of grief, a desperately sad story of a man on a downward spiral into nothingness.

At a certain point of drunkenness William understood a good many things that had evaded him previously. The world, the universe, God too, if there was one, were raged against mankind. From this newly unveiled vantage point he saw that his good fortune was a cruel joke: encourage a man to think he is lucky all the better to bring him down afterwards. He realised his essential smallness, the vanity of his efforts to control his fate. He, William Bellman, master of the mill, was nothing.

Throughout the novel, we are told, in detail, about the ever present rooks: the rooks that seep into the background of William Bellman’s life, and from which he recoils, ever since he killed one with a catapult as a boy of eleven. It leads us to question the connection between the rooks and Bellman’s luck/bad luck. The explicit implication is yes, there’s an obvious connection; but it’s a clever enough book to dare us to conclude no, there is not. And here lies the poignancy of the narrative: it’s so entrenched in death and the impact of it on one man that you can’t help but think about your own mortality. There are no thrills in this story of grief and loneliness, although the few lovingly constructed tender moments are dazzling.  

From the coins, any number of other scenes might come to mind, all as bright and as vivid as the day they had happened. One day and another and another, days and days of living there had been, and she remembered everyone with such freshness and vigour that it was scarcely less true and real than life itself. Her eye lingered on faces and expressions, she received again her mother’s loving looks, she made her brothers laugh, she sniffed the sweet and musty baby smell of her sister.

Bellman & Black is no ghost story as described by some critics, yet it weeps darkness. It is understandable why it was a shock to the system for some Setterfield fans. It largely feels like a one trick novel, completely and utterly about a single subject and about a single character. It certainly is capable of evoking mixed feelings in the reader. In conclusion, it appears to me that Bellman & Black could be read as a complete tragedy, or it could be read as one in millions of stories of life cycles, focusing on the real and persistent fear of death that many of us know well.