Sunday 8 September 2013

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield's first novel; The Thirteenth Tale is one of my all-time favourite novels.  I read it in
hardback, when it was newly released in 2006, almost seven years ago and when I'm asked for book recommendations I always urge people to read it.   It's a gothic tale, a book about books, a mystery, a ghost story - it's book-shaped perfection.

I went to hear Diane Setterfield talk about her writing, at Waterstone's in Lincoln, I think it was in the winter of 2007.  I remember a very softly spoken lady who spoke eloquently, with a passion.  She seemed to be more than a little overwhelmed by the success of her novel, a book that had taken many years to write and that had sat hidden away in her desk drawer for a long time before it was published.   Although she mentioned that she was finding it quite difficult to produce her second novel, I don't think that any of us thought that it would be another six years before that much anticipated book would arrive.

At last, the second novel is here.  Bellman & Black : A Ghost Story will be published by Orion Books on 10 October 2013.  I was delighted to get an advance copy to review, this is a book that I have been eagerly waiting to read for so long.

I'll start with the cover design.  It's really stunningly beautiful, conjuring up a ghostly, gothic read.  The gold lettering along with the shadowy outline of the rook is eye-catching and is sure to stand out amongst the many books displayed on shelves.

And so, to the novel itself.  This is probably one of the most difficult reviews that I've ever had to write.  I actually finished the book over a week ago and have been thinking about what to write here ever since. As much as I really hate having to say this, I'm afraid that Bellman & Black was a huge disappointment to me. I'm really sad, I wanted to love it so much, but I didn't for many reasons.   There is no doubt at all that Diane Setterfield writes very well, she can set a scene and her descriptions are vivid and quite hauntingly beautiful at times.  The prologue is enticing, but actually doesn't tell much more than the accompanying blurb for the book.  William Bellman kills a rook with his catapult, and this event changes his life, although at the time he does not realise this.

As William matures, everything he touches seems to turn to gold.  He turns the family business around, he starts new and exciting ventures and succeeds.  Yet his life is marred by loss and grief, with every success diluted by another disappointment.   Funerals and mourning were important in Victorian times and the author's research is meticulous.  The reader comes away with an insight into the best way to run a mill, how to set up and succeed in the mourning business and a great deal about rooks.  Lots of information, but not a lot of story.  It's a very slow read, it's full of description, but very little plot or exploration of the characters. I really wanted to know more about William and Dora, their inner feelings, their true feelings.  The author seems to have concentrated more on scene setting and atmosphere, which is very well done but there has to be a plausible story to go with it.

So, there it is.  One of my most difficult reviews, and one that I really wish was very different.   I have to be honest though, as much as it hurts.  I'm positive that there will be readers who really enjoy this story, I really hope that there are.

On a positive note, I was really delighted to learn that The Thirteenth Tale is currently being made into a film by the BBC starring Olivia Coleman and Vanessa Redgrave, it will be broadcast later in 2013.

Diane Setterfield is the author of the acclaimed international bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.  She is a former academic, specialising in twentieth century French literature.  She lives in Oxford.

Colman and Redgrave cast in The Thirteenth Tale

Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave
Bafta award-winning actress Olivia Colman will join Vanessa Redgrave in BBC Two's adaptation of Diane Setterfield's novel The Thirteenth Tale.
The story focuses on a biographer, played by Colman, who investigates the mystery surrounding the childhood home of writer Vida Winter (Redgrave).
It is the latest leading role for Colman, who won two Bafta awards this year for her performances in BBC shows Twenty Twelve and Accused.
Her profile has increased since she appeared in the ITV hit Broadchurchearlier this year and she has recently filmed forthcoming BBC One dramaThe 7.39.
Ben Stephenson, commissioning controller of BBC Drama, described The Thirteenth Tale as a treat that "illustrates BBC drama at its best - attracting the highest calibre of talent and making the most ambitious content possible".
The 90-minute film has been written by Christopher Hampton, who adapted Atonement and won an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons.
It will also be made by The White Queen director James Kent and Harry Potter producer David Heyman with his mother Norma Heyman, who also worked on Dangerous Liaisons.
Executive producers are Polly Hill (BBC) and Rosie Alison (Heyday Films).
Filming is due to begin in June for transmission later this year.


  1. Aw Anne I hate when this happens. I have issues with over description in stories as you say it can be very well done but if there is no or little story it is pointless. Here is hoping your next one is better.


  2. Cannot wait to see the film adaptataion of The Thirteenth Tale with those two brilliant actresses in it! I hope it airs near Christmas. On a dark, foggy Sunday afternoon...