A Storytelling of Rooks

Bellman and Black (Atria Books Galley Alley)
Diane Setterfield

I enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale–but I wasn’t over the moon. It was almost too gothic for my taste: the rain, the insane sister, the crumbling country manor, the mysterious author. And more characters than I cared to keep track of. But I’m guessing, like many book lovers, the novel’s shortcomings were off-set by my love of a dark tale set in the English countryside, revolving around an authoress and her life’s work. Her latest novel, Bellman and Black … meh. I simply couldn’t figure out what sort of novel it was: a legend? fable? cautionary tale? I could feel in the writing that Setterfield knew exactly what she wanted to convey–but I also couldn’t help thinking she just never quite did so.


As a young boy, William Bellman (perhaps in the tradition of the Ancient Mariner?) carelessly kills a rook with his slingshot. And Setterfield would have us believe the rooks vow revenge. William’s life proceeds according to custom. He marries, has children, builds his textile mill, succeeds. Until death takes all he holds dear–perhaps the rooks’ retaliation? William then pledges every spare minute of his life to building an empire dedicated to all things funereal. He neglects his health; he ignores his only living daughter; he shuns the company of longtime friends. But still he grows more wealthy and successful. Even so, he is haunted by the glimpse of a man in black who attends every funeral and deathbed. A Mr. Black, it seems. To alleviate the menace the he feels, William begins paying Mr. Black profits which are secreted away in a separate account. And so it goes. Really. Nothing happens that is off-script.

Setterfield scatters the book with short explanations of the different collective noun for rooks–there is a clamour of rooks and a parliament of rooks and a storytelling of rooks–all, apparently, correct. But like so much else in the novel, I just don’t get it.

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