Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

Beyond Black

Review by Niranjana Iyer

Beyond Black.
Hilary Mantel.
Henry Holt and Co. 2005. 384 pp.
ISBN 0312426054.

Allison (Al) is a timid, good-hearted medium; Colette, her business manager, is a tightly-wound, "meagerly-built" divorcee looking to lay the blame for her misfortunes on someone, somewhere. The two women travel around England to psychic fairs, where Allison puts on shows in which she conveys messages from the dead to her audience. During one performance, an audience member asks Allison about the Queen Mother's death.

The woman all but curtseyed. "Have you had any communication from Her Majesty the Queen Mother? How is she faring in the other world? Has she been united with King George?"

"Oh, yes," Allison said. "She'll be reunited."

In fact the chances are about the same as meeting somebody you know at a main line station in rush hour. It's not 14 million to one, like the national lottery, but you have to take into account that the dead, like the living, sometimes like to dodge and weave.

"And Princess Margaret? Has she seen HRH her daughter?"

Princess Margaret came through. Al couldn't stop her. She seemed to be singing a comic song.

But Allison ignores the Princess's spirit, instead going on to answer another audience member's question about his dead father.

It could be the opening act of a Noel Coward play, but Hilary Mantel is a champion of the unnerving. Allison, the daughter of a prostitute, has seen spirits since her unhappy childhood. The spirits, however, aren't the kindly soft-focus apparitions one might reasonably expect, but malignant beings who enjoy physically harming her. Allison connects to the otherworld by means of a spirit-guide, Morris, a twisted ghost who communes with Satan. Morris' friends, who often materialize with him, are all fiends. Literally.

Mantel's realization of the "spirit world" is a triumph; it seems all too likely that fiends and ghosts share our desks at work, occupy the empty seat across in the train, and crouch in the crawlspace of our homes at night. "A certain class of dead people was always talking about cardigans," writes the author; it's hard to not be convinced that she somehow knows, that she's a frequent flyer to the otherworld whose existence the rest of us are still jawing about. Where do you get your ideas, Ms. Mantel?

Meanwhile Colette, whose job initially consisted of driving Allison to her shows, setting up a website, and managing Allison's taxes, has now been co-opted into Allison's struggle to escape Morris. The two women move into a "reassuringly suburban" house in Surrey, which the spirits will presumably be frightened to enter. Suburbia comes with nosy neighbors, whom Colette fends off by describing Allison as a "forecaster"—leading to Allison constantly being questioned about the weather.

The spirit-world might be dangerous, but the soulless suburbs where the women live are a modern-day hell. Mantel shows us a side of England the Lonely Planet is at pains to avoid—an England of "poisoned shrubs," of "fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud," and "the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel."

The suburban house does not provide the hoped-for respite to Allison, who is soon battling increasingly belligerent spirits. Meanwhile Colette has moved from managing to controlling to bullying. She begins by making fun of Allison's weight and spiritual powers, and soon turns into an abusive tyrant. Mantel's cool, detached prose provides no respite to the reader; Allison's association with Collette is soon as harrowing as her liaison with Morris. Her troubles feed off each other and grow; matters come to a climax where Allison must confront the demons around her- even if it means reliving her horrific childhood again.

Mantel is justly famous in her native England; her 1989 novel Fludd bagged a slew of awards, including the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize (other winners include Rohinton Mistry and Graham Swift). Mantel's fame, however, hasn't travelled well—partly because, I suspect, her writing is so hard to classify. Take Beyond Black—by turns comedic, by turns disturbing, and always chilling, this work doesn't fit any ready-to-hand labels. "Literary horror" suggests a Poe or a Henry James, but the novel relies as much on humor as on suspense for its effect. "Black comedy" doesn't make the cut either—Mantel travels well beyond black. A new genre, perhaps, needs to be created for this writer's works—which would only be fitting. Mantel is in a realm of her own.


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