Beyond Black – Hilary Mantel
It is strange to read a book which is set in the area around Blogger Towers – Aldershot, Ash Vale, Farnborough, Knaphill and Guildford get regular name checks in this, Mantel’s fifth novel. It is an odd book with barely a plot worthy of its name but it is entertaining enough and is worth persevering with.
Beyond black is a description of life after death – I seem to be going through a ghoulish phase in my reading at the moment – and the protagonist, Alison Hart, is a sensitive in touch with those in the afterlife or airside as she calls it. She is a professional psychic and tours the Home Counties, usually dreary community centres and run down pubs, holding sessions for her gullible clientele. Mantel revels in describing the activities and attitudes of the psychically blessed, painting them as charlatans and on the make, looking for the next gimmick to exploit. There a moments of real comedy in these sections.
But there is a darker, much darker, side to the book. Alison cannot escape the dead who follow her and bother her. Her spirit guide, Morris, an obscene, dwarfish bookmaker, is revoltingly entertaining. Mantel’s take on the spirit world is that people’s characters don’t change just because they are dead. They are just as unpleasant, nasty, vindictive and forgetful as they were alive. If they were unsavoury characters when they were alive, earthside, they will be unsavoury when airside – a salutary thought, indeed, for those contemplating spending eternity wafting along on a cloud strumming a harp.
Through her spirit guide and his associates, Alison begins to piece together her childhood which was punctuated by periods of neglect, physical and (inevitably) sexual abuse. She eventually twigs who her father may have been. There are passages in these sections which are harrowing.
The other main protagonist, Colette, who joins Alison to become her business partner and persuades her to move from Wexham near Slough to somewhere near Ash Vale in a futile attempt to escape Morris and his pals, is essentially a plot device to better explain the world of psychics and sensitives. Her healthy scepticism is welcome. But Colette’s role peters out as the book reaches its denouement, confirming that she really is only a peg around which to build the story.
Mantel uses her familiar stylistic devices through the book – flash backs, the use of the historic present and the use of dramatic dialogue lay-outs, to mention just three. And the book is over long. There are points when you wonder where the story, such as it is, is going and but for the passages of humour and well written language there are points where I could easily have chucked it all in.
Is it a good book? It is really hard to say. There are moments of sheer genius and the humour, black as it is, appealed to my admittedly warped sense of humour but I found it was difficult to be too sympathetic with the characters and having lost my interest in them, I was ambivalent as to their eventual fate. On balance, therefore, I would have to say it isn’t but nonetheless I am glad that I took the time to read it.