Every most Friday(s), in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.
Published: 2005 by Harper Perennial
My copy: paperback borrowed from my Mum
First read and reviewed by me: July 2010
Memorable quote: They don’t become decent people just because they’re dead. People are right to be afraid of ghosts. If you get people who are bad in life – I mean, cruel people, dangerous people – why do you think they’re going to be any better after they’re dead?
This was my introduction to Hilary Mantel (the start of an enduring relationship as I subsequently went on to devour Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) and wow, I absolutely loved it: gripping, blackly comic and genuinely creepy. Overweight Alison Hart is a medium (her fleshy folds provide a buffer, she feels, against the tremendous suffering in her life, both supernatural and otherwise) who tours the soulless towns of London’s commuter belt to bring her punters messages from the other side. She is accompanied by two characters: her assistant, the very prickly Colette, whose cold-hearted pragmatism provides a sharp contrast to Alison’s compassion and supernatural sensitivity; and by Morris, her spirit guide, a thoroughly nasty individual whose seediness and criminal tendencies have been in no way diminished by his death. I love Mantel’s chilling take on the phenomena of the spirit guide: the usual cliché is that psychics claim to be guided by some thoroughly enlightened individual, a druid or native American shaman. But surely these goodly types would have more pressing things to do on the other side than bring the middle-aged women of Slough messages from their deceased aunts? No, Mantel, postulates – persuasively, if chillingly – the sort of people who are more likely to stick around after death are actually those like Morris; characters with no particular calling other than a desire to cause misery to others, all in the name of “having a laugh.”
Alison is a wonderfully large (no pun intended) and complex character, part victim, part therapist, part fraudulent show-woman, part Mother Teresa. The novel deals with her career across a large tract of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, taking in important events such as the orgy of national grief inspired by the death of Princess Diana (a field-day for psychics) and of course 9/11. Beyond Black exposes the ambivalence of Alison’s relationship with the spirits, particularly those like Morris whom she once knew before they passed over. Mantel writes of the spirit world in a way that is utterly compelling and very real, but it’s also possible to read the novel as some sort of exploration of the lingering psychological effects of childhood trauma: Morris and his cronies are “friends” of Alison’s Mum, a prostitute, and Alison only dimly remembers the most shocking details of the abuse she receives during her neglected childhood. She must force herself to relive these painful events in order to find closure and any sort of reprieve from the evil supernatural presence of Morris in her adult life. Alison’s simultaneous gift and curse can therefore be taken either literally or psychologically; a sustained feat of interpretative dualism that really impressed me. Mantel is similarly generous to the other mediums she portrays in the book, suggesting that whether or not we choose to take seriously their messages from beyond, we should admire their skill as performers and as psychologists. Alison often gets details wrong during her shows – the spirits don’t always tell her the truth, she claims – and even when they do, she prefers to pass on to her clients the details they want to hear rather rather than all the uncomfortable truths. It’s a fascinating psychological portrait.
I finished this novel with a sense that the real tragedy Mantel is trying to depict here is not so much the wasted and tortured lives of neglected children like the waif Alison once was, but rather the emptiness and shallowness of many of the other characters in the novel who have lost all connection to the past: people who live on indentikit new-build estates and neither know nor care who their grandmother was. Whether good or bad the past has a force to bear on the present, we ignore it at our peril.