I really enjoyed Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. It was a book as much about the love of books as it was the dark tale it was telling, and telling it with an unreliable narrator to boot. It left a lasting impression and when I spotted her follow up, a ghost story no less, on the shelf in Foyles, I had to buy it. I bloody love ghost stories. I love being scared when I’m reading or watching something, it’s the best. I haven’t had a book send shivers down my spine since Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (there’s one scene in that book so tense and frightening, it nearly caused a panic attack. High praise indeed). So I was properly excited to read this one. And that’s where it all goes wrong.
It doesn’t help that the marketing for the novel has this to say about it: “Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line”. I spent the whole book waiting for there to be anything approaching tension, but I couldn’t find it among the long rambling descriptions of mundane day to day workings of mills and funeral emporiums. So, our hero is William Bellman. At the age of 11, he has the best catapult and is the envy of all his friends. He kills a rook with it one day, which apparently will be important later. He grows up and leads a charmed life, until people around him begin to die. At every funeral William attends, a stranger is present, dressed in black and smiling at him. After losing his wife and all but one of his children to illness, William is almost insane with grief and at his wife’s grave, he encounters the stranger again. This time, they talk and the stranger makes a proposition.
From that proposition, William builds a successful funeral emporium, the titular Bellman & Black. The first half of the novel is focussed so much on William’s work at the family mill, it’s mostly quite dull. The second half focuses on the building of this new venture and is even more dull, because people stop dying. Nothing ratchets up line by line, apart from maybe my impatience for something to actually happen, for Setterfield to pay off Bellman’s obsession with rooks, why people died around him, something, anything. But when it comes, the payoff is a crushing, boring, and very much not scary disappointment.
If you don’t believe the hype, and don’t know this is supposed to be heart thumping, perfect and tense or whatever, then there’s something quite absorbing about the earlier parts of the book. William is a charming rogue of a character, and the happiness he finds with his family being so comprehensively shattered makes for some bleak reading. But nothing can save the second half, where William is cold, closed off and occasionally barking mad, monomaniacally focussed on his business. Such a disappointment.