Those lines are from Mark Cocker's book Crow Country, and Diane Setterfield has used them as the epigraph to her new and long-awaited novel Bellman & Black, for rooks feature throughout, occasionally in the foreground, more often as a shadowy background figure, but always wearing that 'sky-cloak of mystery'.
The story begins with a group of young boys playing in the Oxfordshire countryside. One of them, William Bellman, has a catapult, a good aim, and an unshakeable confidence in his ability to hit a target, and to his companions' surprise, his missile reaches its target - a rook on a far tree - and the bird is killed. Now rooks suddenly arrive from all directions and take their places on the branches where their fellow had sat. There is no noise, no chatter, just "intent and purposeful silence" as the birds stare at William who in turn is deeply unnerved.
As William forgets the incident, so we follow him as he grows up, as he goes to work for his uncle at Bellman's Mill, as he quickly masters every aspect of the business and becomes an indispensible second-in-command. He is a man of drive and purpose, of great commercial sense and shrewdness and strategic ability, one who will apply himself to any problem and find a solution, and when competitors are failing, William's mill flourishes and he prospers. He seems blessed, both in his family life and his work, until tragedy strikes ...
I loved this novel. I slid into it like a hand into a glove, and it held me comfortably from start to finish so that I was sorry to leave it. I loved its gentle pace and steady rhythm, its repeating images and motifs, the playing out of its central mystery - of which I'll say no more - the fugue-like development of its themes, and the inevitability of the story's trajectory. I found the details of the workings of the woollen mill, the 19th. century cloth industry, and William's subsequent business building and running an emporium on London's Regent Street all quite fascinating, and it struck me that Diane Setterfield has not only researched her subject with the utmost thoroughness but placed her facts and findings with care and skill to build a story of pleasing integrity.
The book will not appeal to everyone. Some will not take to the rook lore with which chapters are interspersed; some will have no time for its central conceit; for others, the very seamlessness of the narrative - its steady pulse and its deliberate predictability - will not appeal. But for me, William Bellman and his ever-present calfskin notebook, his lists, his plans, his application to the task in hand and the one beyond it, the bargain he makes with a mysterious stranger ... all this made compelling reading.