Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

In Norse mythology, Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”) are a pair of ravens which fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. Odin is referred to as “raven-god”. In the Prose Edda and the Third Grammatical Treatise, the two ravens are described as perching on Odin’s shoulders. Heimskringla details that Odin gave Huginn and Muninn the ability to speak.

Huginn and Muninn’s role as Odin’s messengers has been linked to shamanic practices and general raven symbolism among the Germanic peoples, and the Norse concepts of supernatural creatures.
In the Third Grammatical Treatise, an anonymous verse is recorded that mentions the ravens flying from Odin’s shoulders – Huginn seeking hanged men, and Muninn slain bodies. The verse reads:
Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s shoulders;
Huginn to the hanged and Muninn to the slain [lit. corpses].

Setterfield references these birds in her closing: the descendants of Thought and Memory will gather at the end of your story, just as they do at the end of William Bellman’s story.

This is a thought-provoking, challenging, and provocative book, not for readers who do not want to think about what they are reading or remember events in their lives. Those of us who have experienced deaths of family and friends will understand some of it. I think the book requires a second reading to understand all and, even then, much will be left to the reader’s interpretation.
It was a difficult book to read, in that it is difficult to see a man’s life collapse so totally.

Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, was published in 2007, and has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. It has moved up to the top of my very tall stack of books to read.

As a ten-year-old boy, William, out playing with his friends, idly kills a rook. A rook is in the crow family, with black feathers often showing a blue or bluish-purple sheen in bright sunlight. The feathers on the head, neck and shoulders are particularly dense and silky.

Collective nouns for rooks include building, parliament, clamor and storytelling. Their communal nesting behavior gave rise to the term rookery.

William is the grandson of a wealthy woolen mill owner. However, his father married beneath him, was cut off from the family, and eventually deserted his wife and son. Consequently, William is beneath his grandfather’s derision. He will not inherit the mill from his grandfather. His uncle, though, hires him as at the mill, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck. He learns everything there is to know and suggests improvements which his uncle puts into place, with some manipulating of the grandfather.

William is an outgoing, pleasant, sociable young man with a charming way with the ladies. He wins over all the workers at the mill, even the ones who initially mistrust him because of his family ties.

Eventually, grandfather dies. His uncle takes him on as an assistant. The mill flourishes. Then his uncle dies. Because his cousin, Charles, has no interest in the mill, William takes over. William meets and marries and has four children. Life is good.
Then his mother dies and his life falls apart. His friends die. His wife and three children die; the fourth remains in a coma for months. He finds solace only in work.

The odd thing is that at every funeral, over many years, there is a man in black, unknown to William. Finally, at his children’s graves, he talks to this man, Mr. Black, and they make a deal.

William turns over management of the mill, moves, with his daughter, to London and spends a year building a department store for death, Bellman and Black. As you undoubtedly are aware, death was to the Victorians what sex is to us. The business booms, and William is at the store all day and all night. Yes, he has a bed built into his office. He has no friends, hardly sees his daughter, is rarely away from the store. Death is his business.

Profits, though, begin to decline. Why? No explanation, other than cremations seem to be the fashion now.

Then William is visited by Mr. Black who appears only as a darkly shrouded form. He has come to say good-bye. William offers him money, but he learns that he misunderstood the deal. What Mr. Black is offering is “Thought” and “Memory,” the thought and memory of death. He remembers all the people he has known who have died, and then he remembers the rook he killed.

After William is buried, his daughter and the son of a friend who was there at the beginning go back to the mill to see the flocks of rooks that fly over the mill each day. It is a startling sight.

Is the rook death? It is Thought and Memory. As mentioned above, a collective noun for rooks is storytelling. The rook will be there at the end of your story and tell it to other rooks. Setterfield closes by telling us that rooks have a collective noun for us: an entertainment of humans.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

  1. I really enjoyed reading the historical background on the rooks in this story. I just was not happy with this one. I loved The Thirteenth Tale and I thought all the things she tried in this were either too obvious or didn’t connect to the rest. Your blog helped me see what I was missing though. : )

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