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Beyond Black

By Hilary Mantel

We enter the spirit world in Hilary Mantel’s latest offering, and a far more sinister place as well, that of contemporary Home Counties England. In many ways a novel which can be read as a companion piece to Mantel’s last outing, the visceral memoir of medical condescension and neglect, Giving Up the Ghost, which proved to be a more than creditable contribution to that currently overworked genre – chiefly by avoiding its twin pitfalls of, on the one hand, whinging victimhood and, on the other, its flip-side, crass self-congratulation – Beyond Black introduces us to Alison Hart, who is ‘a sensitive’ or, in more common parlance, a medium. In other words, dead people talk to her, and she talks back.
Chronically overweight, and assailed at every turn by the ghosts of the men who abused her during her highly disturbing Aldershot girlhood, an unsavoury crew of reprobates and thugs who preyed on her hapless prostitute mother, Alison is in need of looking after. Which provides the perfect opportunity for arch opportunist Colette, the whippet-thin younger woman with an eye to the main chance, to become Al’s assistant and, subsequently, her business partner. In flight from a vacuous marriage to the gormless Gavin – the kind of bloke for whom What Car? is the Bible, and who neglects to mention over dinner that his mother died that day – Colette has been checking out various psychics for comfort (rather like one of the oft-referenced zeitgeist-signifying figures of the book, Princess Diana), only to be disappointed. That is, until she happens on Colette. Both women are in need of something, and look to the other to provide it for them. Colette takes Alison’s practical affairs in hand, doing the books and sorting out tax, and ferrying her to and from her engagements in the dormitory towns of London’s orbital road. She even plans to ghost-write (bum-bum) a book about her. Plus, she’s someone for Alison to have around when her spirit-guide, Morris, the ghost of one of the ghastly men, gets too stroppy. And what does Alison give Colette? A livelihood, and a life, away from the cut and thrust of the careerist free market, and the rough and tumble of the heterosexual free-for-all.
Mantel brilliantly captures the performative element of Alison’s job, how she handles ‘the trade’ – as her audience is referred to throughout – while on stage, her public persona ‘a little bit jaunty and a little bit crude, a bit of a schoolmistress and a bit of a flirt’. All of this is accomplished without ever undercutting our suspension of disbelieve about her heroine’s gift, or rather, her curse. She may use inspired guesswork (or ‘psychology’, as she calls it), but that doesn’t mean she’s a fraud. Yet this ready acceptance of the supernatural realm is also, paradoxically, perhaps the novel’s most glaring weakness. Mantel takes it as read that Alison and her odd band of mystic colleagues have special powers, but what of readers who remain too sceptical about what they regard as new age (or traditional) mumbo-jumbo to grant her this license? It’s a safe bet that the more sophisticated members of the audience for drama in 5th century B.C. Athens were already regarding the gods in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as complex metaphorical projections of the human condition, rather than real entities. Similarly, one of the stumbling blocks of Yeats’ scholarship is to what extent did the poet believe all that nonsense about fairies and oujia boards, or how conscious was he that it was all an enabling poetic myth? As it is, because we are invited to read Alison’s haunting as literal rather than figurative, its power can be diminished. There again, such unquestioned and unquestioning devotion to the spirit world may be an oblique comment on the spiritless and dispiriting anomie of Blair’s Britain.

 

 

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Where the novel is at its strongest is in its dissection of the mores of contemporary England. Alison and Colette move from the former’s childhood home of Aldershot to a new-build gated estate, in an effort to throw her otherworldly fiends off the scent. But their new next door neighbours, the banal Michelle and Evan, prove almost equally as scary in their blinkered ordinariness. This is a place where ‘homeless’ automatically equals ‘paedophile’, and Neighbourhood Watch vigilantes patrol, on the lookout for refugees and asylum seekers. When Matt, a schizophrenic vagrant Alison has befriended, in an effort to ‘do a good action’ to assuage her guilt about her past, hangs himself in their garden shed, the main preoccupation of the other residents is how the incident will impact on the resale value of their houses. Alison clearly empathises with Matt’s plight, however. Earlier, when Colette had opined that she prefered to think that Alison was cheating instead of claiming to be genuine, ‘because a lot of people who hear voices, they get diagnosed and put in hospital’, Alison tells her, ‘I make a living, you see. That’s the difference between me and the people who are mad. They don’t call you mad, if you’re making a living.’
The reflexive relationship Beyond Black has with Giving Up the Ghost is evident in the fact that Alison and Colette could be interpreted as two versions of Mantel herself, her thin, younger, get-ahead incarnation, and her post-endometriosis, ballooned-out metamorphoses. The maxim that inside every fat girl is a thin one trying to get out can so easily be inverted. Similarly, the male parentage of both women is disputed or murky, which echoes Mantel’s own autobiographical experience.
In general, men come off pretty badly in Mantel’s vision, Alison’s fearsome furies and Colette’s pathetic Gavin amounting to ‘a creeping male presence’, which can seem unfairly hyperbolic to this (admittedly male) reader. For all the evil men do, some of them have done some good. Besides, a goodly proportion of the criticism is vapidly knee-jerk. When Colette muses fretfully about how she will ever meet a man, living where she does, she dismisses her married, male neighbours as ‘hardly men at all’, but ‘dutiful emasculates, squat and waddling under their burden of mortgage debt…’ But what exactly does she think she’d turn any man she yoked up with into? As it is, she winds up going back to Gavin, after seven years, when Alison’s final apocalypse proves too much for her to handle. Selfish, limited and ungenerous, they are written off as losers who deserve each other. Alison, on the other hand, seems to reap the reward of her ‘good action’, finally finding more congenial spirit guides.
This is a deeply frustrating novel which, rather like Alison, could have done with a good trimming down, and might have made a more successful and incisive short story. As it is, there is rather too much repetition in this tale of a not-so-happy medium.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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