“An astonishing work of genius.” —Bookreporter “Magically transformative.” —Bookpage
Can one moment in time haunt you forever? From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale comes a “poetic and mysterious” (Booklist) story that will haunt you to your very core.
Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget…
Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.
This reading group guide forBellman & Blackincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
As a boy, William Bellman makes an impossible shot with his catapult, killing a rook instantly. He grows up to create a loving family and to manage a successful business, but the incident haunts his seemingly perfect life. Only when tragedy strikes does William realize that his boyhood deed may have lasting consequences. A stranger in black begins to haunt his life, and William enters into a strange bargain with the ghostly apparition. The gloomy, yet fantastically successful result of this bargain—Bellman & Black—changes his life forever.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The opening incident, when William kills a rook with his catapult, is recalled later in the narrative. What impression does the event leave with William’s companions (Charles, Luke, and Fred)? How do their memories of the event compare with William’s?
2. Look back to the intervening chapters about rooks that are scattered throughout the book. How does their placement relate to and have significance with the rest of the story? Discuss any legends and stories you may know about rooks, crows, and ravens. Perhaps you have personal experiences to share. Did the author draw on any literary references? If so, which ones?
3. How do Victorian mourning traditions compare to our modern-day experience? Were the Victorians wrong to mourn for so long and with so much expense? Is the way we do things better? What is the right place for commerce in death rituals?
4. William almost immediately succeeds at whatever he tries, and is both a dedicated worker and father. Why do you think the author makes William such a perfect ‘golden boy’? How does this affect your impression of him? Did you find William unsympathetic because of his easy success? Why or why not? Why weren’t the townspeople at all jealous of his model family and thriving business?
5. While Paul held William in high esteem, his father was not at all fond of William. What in particular appealed to Paul about his nephew? Also, discuss the reason why “the old Mr. Bellman” (p. 34) did not want William to manage his mill.
6. In a way, William plays the role of Paul’s son, as the successive family member at the mill. Imagine and discuss what Paul’s early relationship with his own son, Charles, was like. Why does Charles so willingly hand over the mill and house to William?
7. Despite the successful business in their family, William and his mother were not wealthy and struggled to make ends meet. Why did Dora not turn to her in-laws for assistance in raising William and providing for him?
8. Only Dora, William’s eldest daughter, survives the fever that devastates both their family and the town. Why do you think Dora seems to have a special understanding of her father? How does she know to avoid any discussion of birds or rooks with William?
9. William proves himself an extremely diligent and thorough man, whether he is managing the mill, nursing his family to health, or creating and maintaining a business with a stranger he has barely met. When do his work habits and diligence begin to get out of hand? Why and how does he work for so long without need for rest or company?
10. Much has changed since Victorian times but is William Bellman’s relationship with his work relevant to twenty-first-century readers?
11. Despite his appearance of friendliness to his employees and clients, William builds a thicker and thicker wall between himself and the world. Why does he fail to maintain his relationships with friends and family? For example, William hastily returns to London instead of staying in town for his friend Fred’s funeral.
12. Look back to the graveyard scene where William enters into the bargain with Black. Did you have any thoughts about who Mr. Black may be at this point in the story?
13. When William finally finds and speaks with Mr. Black at the end of the book, he learns that Bellman & Black was his own creation alone. Mr. Black tells him: “I offered you an opportunity, I’m not talking about Bellman & Black. That was your idea. What I was offering you in your bereavement was an opportunity of another kind. I offer it to you again now. Before it is too late” (p. 313). What was the opportunity that Mr. Black really offered that night in the graveyard, and that he offers again at this moment in the story?
14. How far is it possible to describe Bellman & Black as a ghost story? Which elements recall other ghost stories you have read and which ones seem unlike the classic ghost story? The author doesn’t believe in ghosts as such but she does believe that human beings are or can be haunted. Is this a helpful distinction?
15. Openings to books can carry special weight and readers and critics are inclined to pay special attention to first lines. What is important about the first word of Bellman & Black?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Find a literary example of rooks, crows, or ravens and share the significance of the birds in that piece of literature. How is the author’s use of rooks in the story similar to or different from other literary references?
2. Identify the passages when William encounters or thinks he sees Mr. Black. Is there any significance to the placement of these moments in the story? Write one or two sentences to clarify your understanding of William’s relationship with Mr. Black. Is he real or imagined? Discuss any similarities or differences you find with the group.
3. At the end of the novel, Dora attends her father’s funeral. She speaks with Robert, Fred’s son, about their deceased fathers. Both represent the next generation of the story, and this ending feels like a beginning for Dora. Imagine the next phase of Dora’s life, and write or discuss the next chapter for the story of these (now grown) children.
4. Speaking about her ideas for the story, the author mentions an interview she heard with a very successful businessman. When asked what prosperous businessmen have that ordinary people lack, the man responded that the question should really be what these successful people lack that drives them to work so incessantly. How did the author incorporate this idea in the novel? And what do you think successful people lack? Visit the author’s website and read her blog (DianeSetterfield.com) to learn more about her inspiration for this story.
Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.