Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield opens with a ten-year-old William Bellman playing with three friends. The boys try to outdo each other at running, tree-climbing, and arm-wrestling. William takes out his catapult and brags he can hit a rook (crow) in a far-off tree. The boys are skeptical. Even William is skeptical. He makes a great show of selecting just the right stone. He aims and launches the stone, all the while hoping the bird will fly off before being hit. The bird doesn’t move. The stone hits its target. The bird falls on the ground, lifeless. Immediately, there is a noticeable change in the four boys, especially in William. He becomes feverish for several days, trying hard to suppress the memory. He almost succeeds.
This pivotal childhood event impacts the trajectory of William’s life. We follow his career as he becomes the manager of Bellman’s Mill and then its owner. He astonishes employees with his prodigious amount of energy. Constantly on the move, feverishly running from one project to another, William lives at an accelerated pace as if he is afraid to slow down, afraid to remember. All seems to be going well, but then friends and family start dying off, including his wife and all but one of his children. At each funeral he attends, William sees a tall, mysterious stranger dressed in black. He eventually confronts the stranger (“Mr. Black”) and thinks he has struck a bargain with him to keep his remaining child alive. Accordingly, he establishes Bellman & Black, a one-stop shop for every conceivable item dealing with the death industry.
William’s success comes at a cost. As his frantic pace increases, he begins to suffer from dizzy spells and nausea. He neglects his daughter and friends, is haunted by guilt, but he never allows himself to pause and reflect. He only knows he must rush through each day at a frenzied pace while obsessively checking items off his to-do list.
As William tries desperately to appease Mr. Black by accumulating wealth for his “silent” partner, it becomes evident his refusal to confront his guilt has generated problems. Mr. Black is imaginary. He exists only in William’s mind as a manifestation of a suppressed memory. William learns too late that suppressed memories never disappear. They manifest in various forms, influencing behavior and actions in ways that are not necessarily rational. This is not a ghost story. It is a novel about actions which haunt us throughout our lives.
Although a quick and easy read, this novel is not as successful as Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or Once Upon a River. Setterfield’s ability to evoke a haunting atmosphere through revealing details and suggestive phrases continues to impress. Her description of the structure and activities at the Bellman & Black emporium is particularly effective. The passages about rooks and their sporadic, haunting appearances throughout the novel provide an added dimension to the other-worldly atmosphere. But with the exception of William Bellman, the characters are not well developed and fall far short of the fully-fleshed out, interesting characters in Once Upon a River. The novel drags in certain parts and is repetitive in others. But on the whole, it is a compelling portrayal of possible consequences of a suppressed trauma.