Bellman and Black (Setterfield)

Bellman & Black 
Diane Setterfield, 2013
Simon & Schuster
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781476711959

One moment in time can haunt you forever.

Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten.

By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget...

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—August 22, 1964
Where—Berkshire, England, UK
Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of Bristol
Currently—lives in Yorkshire, England

Diane Setterfield is in her early forties. Having spent time in France, she now lives in Harrogate. Her background is an academic one. Her previous publications have been in the field of 19th and 20th century French literature, especially the works of André Gide.

Diane Setterfield is one of the most talked-about authors in the world, and as of this writing, her debut novel hasn't even been released yet! The reason this British academic is causing such a stir is because her haunting gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale, was the subject of a high-stakes bidding war on both sides of the pond. After she was discovered by novelist Jim Crace (Genesis; Being Dead) at a writing course on how to get published (!), Setterfield's book caught the attention of multiple publishers. As the oft-told story goes, the ten-day bidding war the book inspired resulted in it being sold for a staggering 800,000 pounds in the U.K. and $1 million in the U.S. (to Simon & Schuster). Eight translation deals have also been signed, and the book is also expected to be a hot target for filmmakers.

All of this has been quite a kick for Setterfield, who had been a teacher of French literature and the French language and had only previously published articles on literary theory. "If you ask anybody who has ever thought of writing a book how they feel about getting their work published, they will tell you that nothing could be more thrilling," Setterfield told the Yorkshire Post. "Any serious writer would view it as an enormous privilege to be able to devote the best of their time to what they love, and that's what I'll now be able to do."

As for the book that has attracted all of this rabid attention, Setterfield delivers one of the most intriguing novels to hit book stores in a long time with the story of Margaret Lea. The reclusive, plain Margaret spends her days working in her father's bookshop, where she fuels her fascination for famous writers. When she receives a letter from the legendary Vida Winter—a novelist notorious for toying with journalists and constantly reinventing her own life story—Margaret is given a most intriguing offer. As Vida is aging and ailing, she finally wants to come clean about her past and tell her true story to Margaret. What follows is a labyrinthine descent into the strange and chilling story of Vida's past and her bizarre family history. Critics have lauded The Thirteenth Tale as a credible successor to the greatest works by literary luminaries like Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier. Publishers Weekly has already applauded its "graceful storytelling that has its own pleasures," and Library Journal notes how the book "grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn't let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed."

As for Setterfield, who is currently working on her second novel, she believes that the true gauge of her novel's success is still yet to come. "Of course I'm very happy with how it all seems to be going... but nobody has bought a copy yet," she said. "All the success so far is lovely, but the real acid test will be September when it gets into the shops."

Excerpts from a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Jobs I had before I began writing, in chronological order: Chambermaid, Shop Assistant (lightbulbs and batteries), Shop Assistant (newspapers and greetings cards), Bakery Assistant (I put the jam into doughnuts. I hate doughnuts.), Assistant in an old people's home, Library Assistant, English Language Tutor, Translator, French Language Tutor, University Lecturer, French Language Tutor again. Writing suits me better than any other job I have had.

• My best vacation: The most recent holiday was the best. My husband and I have just come back from Athens. It was my first visit, the first of many I am sure. My favorite things were: the view of the city from the top of Lycabettus Hill. The mysterious and moving figures in the Museum of Cycladic Art. The glass windows in the pavements where they meant to dig ventilation shafts for the new metro but found such fabulous antiquities that they had to excavate instead. The artichoke/courgette/dill salad at To Kafenio. The birdsong at 6:00 on a May evening at the Kerameikos.

• I have kept a reading diary since I was 18. I am jealous of my friend who has kept hers since she was ten.

• I love to read, obviously. Cooking and eating are joys (as I write this the sun is shining, and I am wondering whether the time is right to buy an ice-cream maker). I am always happy up a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand. And I wish I had more time to spend in the garden -- not least because I get good ideas for writing when I'm out there. I like spending time with my friends. (I did warn you. Writers are not special people. When they're not writing they do exactly the same as everyone else.)

• There is no single book that stands out in my mind as having influenced me in this way. Rather, it is the experience of reading itself that has been central in my life. The addictive pleasure of abandoning yourself to a book, of losing consciousness of your worries, your body, and your surroundings, to become a ghost haunting other worlds has influenced me in many ways....

• My mother says that after I first visited the home of the man I later married, she knew it was serious when I told her, "Mum, he has more books than me!" So, books are at the very heart of my life.

• My favorite book: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It is the most perfect book I can remember reading. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
As a child, William Bellman nastily kills a bird with a slingshot but doesn't suffer the consequences until decades later... [when] a black-garbed stranger arrives, and William finds that he can save what little he has left if he agrees to enter into the spooky business concern that becomes Bellman & Black.
Library Journal

[P]poetic and mysterious.... William a boy....impresses his companions by killing a rook with his slingshot.... As the years fly by, William becomes a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge, obsessed with work and haunted by the appearance of crows, and Setterfield is our Dickensian conscience, reminding us of what coins can and cannot buy. —Lynn Weber

A boy hits the wrong bird with a slingshot, with lifelong consequences, in this second venture into gothic territory from Setterfield.... Although this novel succeeds in creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, the effect is attenuated by too much detail about the running of mills and department stores and also by a growing puzzlement over why an impulsive childhood transgression, never repeated, should exact such a terrible penalty. A gothic tale in which moments of tedium are relieved by morbidity.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The opening incident, when William kills a rook with his catapult, is recalled later in the narrative. What impression does the event leave with William’s companions (Charles, Luke, and Fred)? How do their memories of the event compare with William’s?

2. Look back to the intervening chapters about rooks that are scattered throughout the book. How does their placement relate to and have significance with the rest of the story? Discuss any legends and stories you may know about rooks, crows, and ravens. Perhaps you have personal experiences to share. Did the author draw on any literary references? If so, which ones?

3. How do Victorian mourning traditions compare to our modern-day experience? Were the Victorians wrong to mourn for so long and with so much expense? Is the way we do things better? What is the right place for commerce in death rituals?

4. William almost immediately succeeds at whatever he tries, and is both a dedicated worker and father. Why do you think the author makes William such a perfect ‘golden boy’? How does this affect your impression of him? Did you find William unsympathetic because of his easy success? Why or why not? Why weren’t the townspeople at all jealous of his model family and thriving business?

5. While Paul held William in high esteem, his father was not at all fond of William. What in particular appealed to Paul about his nephew? Also, discuss the reason why “the old Mr. Bellman” (p. 34) did not want William to manage his mill.

6. In a way, William plays the role of Paul’s son, as the successive family member at the mill. Imagine and discuss what Paul’s early relationship with his own son, Charles, was like. Why does Charles so willingly hand over the mill and house to William?

7. Despite the successful business in their family, William and his mother were not wealthy and struggled to make ends meet. Why did Dora not turn to her in-laws for assistance in raising William and providing for him?

8. Only Dora, William’s eldest daughter, survives the fever that devastates both their family and the town. Why do you think Dora seems to have a special understanding of her father? How does she know to avoid any discussion of birds or rooks with William?

9. William proves himself an extremely diligent and thorough man, whether he is managing the mill, nursing his family to health, or creating and maintaining a business with a stranger he has barely met. When do his work habits and diligence begin to get out of hand? Why and how does he work for so long without need for rest or company?

10. Much has changed since Victorian times but is William Bellman’s relationship with his work relevant to twenty-first-century readers?

11. Despite his appearance of friendliness to his employees and clients, William builds a thicker and thicker wall between himself and the world. Why does he fail to maintain his relationships with friends and family? For example, William hastily returns to London instead of staying in town for his friend Fred’s funeral.

12. Look back to the graveyard scene where William enters into the bargain with Black. Did you have any thoughts about who Mr. Black may be at this point in the story?

13. When William finally finds and speaks with Mr. Black at the end of the book, he learns that Bellman & Black was his own creation alone. Mr. Black tells him: “I offered you an opportunity, I’m not talking about Bellman & Black. That was your idea. What I was offering you in your bereavement was an opportunity of another kind. I offer it to you again now. Before it is too late” (p. 313). What was the opportunity that Mr. Black really offered that night in the graveyard, and that he offers again at this moment in the story?

14. How far is it possible to describe Bellman & Black as a ghost story? Which elements recall other ghost stories you have read and which ones seem unlike the classic ghost story? The author doesn’t believe in ghosts as such but she does believe that human beings are or can be haunted. Is this a helpful distinction?

15. Openings to books can carry special weight and readers and critics are inclined to pay special attention to first lines. What is important about the first word of Bellman & Black?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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