Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 5 November 2013.

Bellman & Black
In Norse mythology, Odin had two ravens: Huginn and Muninn. The ravens represented thought and memory and reported back to Odin everything they saw as they flew around Midgard. In Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black, it seems that the corvids have become free agents. As I read this book, I thought about luck as much as I did about fate and retribution. Because in this book, the birds really do come home to roost.

After a short prologue, Setterfield takes us back to when our protagonist was ten and showing off to his friends by killing a young rook with a slingshot. William Bellman is filled with a terrible regret about his actions, but he learns to move onward and upward. Bellman seems to have a knack for business. Everything he touches, for decades, turns to gold. He has an incredible run of luck at his family's mill. He finds a wonderful girl who loves him, and they raise a bustling little family. Almost halfway through the book, Bellman's luck turns. A fever comes to his village and kills his wife and three of his children. His oldest daughter is near death when Bellman snaps, gets roaring drunk, and visits his wife's grave.

At the graveside, Bellman meets a man he's seen before at other funerals but never had a chance to speak to. This mysterious man, dubbed Black, offers Bellman a deal. Black will, somehow, save Bellman's daughter. When Bellman has to do in return remains a mystery for most of the rest of the book. He's under the impression that he has to create a new business, selling mourning clothes and goods, and split the profits with Black. Bellman's golden touch hasn't deserted him and the business thrives. He dutifully sets aside Black's share, but the man doesn't show up for ten years.

During those ten years, Bellman drives himself nearly out of his mind trying to remember the terms of the deal he made with Black. He's always been a thinker, but by the end of that decade, Bellman can hardly sleep or eat for thinking. His colleagues worry about him. His doctor worries about him. But Bellman can't turn his brain off most of the time. All this builds to a final confrontation between Bellman and Black, and you learn what exactly it was that Bellman gave up.

Throughout the book, Setterfield strikes notes of dread. Black birds are everywhere. Bellman's constantly churning mind reminded me of some of Edgar Allan Poe's narrators. I kept waiting for the thumping sound of a heart under a floor as Bellman wracked his brain trying to figure out how to appease Black. Bellman grows obsessed with time, yet curiously he loses track of time, too. All this together makes Setterfield's story a chilling read. It's uncomfortable in the best way because, as Bellman's mind ticks over, your's is, too, as you trying and figure out what everything is counting down to.

Bellman & Black reads like a fable much of the time. There's something not quite real about it and mythology is everywhere. The ending is well worth the wait while Bellman's too-good luck runs its course.

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