Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

This novel was recommended to me by a rare-book expert I know; we have some similar tastes and she said this was a favorite of hers.  I actually wouldn't have chosen it, just because there is a Victorian dress on the cover, and I'm a little tired of the kind of books that feature fancy dresses on the covers.  But!  It turned out that the dress was actually meaningful to the plot, and it wasn't at all a 'ballgown' kind of novel.  (I should have realized that just from the person who recommended it!)

A village in mid-Victorian England:  four boys are out playing, and William Bellman, in a moment of showing off, aims his slingshot at a young rook and kills it.  And then he forgets -- but the rooks don't forget, not at all.

As a young man, William joins his uncle at the wool mill.  He's bright and practical-minded, and soon he's risen to manager.  The entire first half of the novel is given to William's life at the mill, and eventually his family.  It's actually a lovely read and I would have been perfectly happy to read an entire historical novel just about a clever and ambitious man's life in a fascinating business, and his nice family -- Setterfield makes this story completely absorbing.  But that is not what this is.

Instead, tragedy hits the village and William loses so much.  He also meets a man who both frightens and fascinates him, and who gives him the idea of a new business venture.  Bellman & Black becomes William's new obsession, and it's a great success; but will there be a price? 

The ending isn't what I expected, either.  All through, this novel doesn't act as expected.  It's rather spooky, and also subtle, so that nothing is obvious or clear.  I enjoyed it very much, and was pleasantly surprised several times.  It's an unusual kind of story.

This novel made me realize that I did not actually know what a rook was, besides being kind of like a crow.  (I had a vague idea that they might be the same thing.)  So I looked it up, and found this excellent video that explains the differences between five British corvids. Rooks are a lot like crows, but they're way more social and like to hang out in groups, they're shaggier, and most obviously, adults have greyish-white beaks and bare patches on the face.

This is a rook.


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