Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 480 pages; 2005.
How to describe Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black? It’s not strictly a horror novel. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a black comedy. It’s not a family drama. But it does have elements of all these genres combined in one slightly wacky, highly unusual and brilliantly engrossing work of fiction.
Life of a psychic
Alison Hart is an overweight and overwrought psychic who hires a manager, the stick-thin and heartless Colette, to sort out her business affairs. But what she is unconsciously seeking is not a business partner but a companion, someone to accompany her on the long drives through London’s dormitory towns where she peddles her trade as a medium, and someone to share her home life, which is populated by lowlife ghosts from the Spirit World.
In essence, Ali is seeking a protector, someone to make her feel safe in a world that offers constant threats and danger, both physical and metaphysical.
But what’s in it for Colette? She gets to finally escape her dim, dull husband. She gets a reasonably well-paid job that’s less stressful than her current corporate one in event management. She also gets to live in a nice new house and drive a nice new car. In short, she gets the chance of a much-longed-for fresh start.
What Colette doesn’t realise is that living and working with Ali is a 24-7 job that is testing, trying and claustrophobic. And what Ali doesn’t realise is that Colette is a control freak, who won’t even let her eat a piece of bread without giving her the third degree. It’s like a marriage but one in which both partners enter it with their eyes closed and then wonder why things aren’t going that well.
The ties that bind
Beyond Black is an exploration of the ties, both physical and mental, that bind these two women together. There’s no real plot to speak of, instead, the story is driven by these amazingly unique, rich but totally believable characters, two women damaged in different ways who are trying to make sense of the universe around them.
Colette spends much of her time interviewing Ali for a book that she wishes to publish about Ali’s life as a medium. But over the course of these interviews she finds out much more about Ali than she could have ever expected and Ali, in turn, begins to open up old wounds and memories she thought long forgotten about her traumatic childhood in which she was systematically abused by a succession of her mother’s male “friends”.
These memories are shudder-inducing and seem all the more tragic because Ali can’t quite make sense of what happened and it is up to the reader to join the dots, a literary effect that works brilliantly because of its heightened emotional impact.
Sprinkled throughout is a cast of superb supporting characters — Ali’s weird and exotic medium and crystal-ball-reading colleagues, the gang of nasty male spirits from her childhood who haunt her existing life, a tramp who lives in her garden shed, a mean-spirited, mentally-unbalanced mother — which greatly enriches the world that Hilary Mantel has created in this oh-so different novel.
And underpinning all this are real-life towns (Windsor, Slough etc), roads (London’s orbital M25, the M4 etc) and events (the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 9/11 etc) that make this surreal story seem somehow more believable because they anchor it to places and events that I know.
All in all, a hugely offbeat novel, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, but wholly absorbing once I got past the first couple of chapters. I am now tempted to read more by this talented British author and would welcome suggestions by other readers about which title to try next.
5 thoughts on “‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel”
Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, would be the most logical one to follow Beyond Black. I’ve not made it through her enormous novel on the French Revolution (the one she mentions most in her memoir), but I’ve also enjoyed A Change of Climate and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.
Thanks Susan. I’ve read the blurb of her memoir; it certainly sounds like she has lead an interesting life.
I too would recommend Giving Up the Ghost and A Change of Climate (my favourite before Beyond Black).
You could also try An Experiment in Love, which worked for me.
The Giant O’Brien for some reason did not engage and Fludd felt like a early work, which it was.
Carlton, reading Giving up the Ghost a couple of months ago and thought it was wonderful.
Really looking forward to reading this now!!! It sounds like Mantel is an author I am going to really enjoy!