No 345 Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Before Hilary Mantel hit Booker glory with her Thomas Cromwell novels, she wrote Beyond Black, a bleak but comic novel that blends genres to tell the story of a distressed medium, Alison and her hard-nosed manager Colette.

Beyond Black is a darkly comic account of clairvoyancy and psychic showmanship told against the backdrop of the uninviting new towns on the edge of England’s motorway networks; a world of slip road and service stations, scout halls and pub back rooms. It is also a terrifying ghost story detailing the nature of the adult mind continuously haunted by childhood trauma.

The novel opens with Alison performing on stage and Mantel makes it clear from the start that she uses some canny guesswork and subtle suggestion to get results, but that she does genuinely commune with the dead. Much of the comedy in the novel comes from the fact that the dead are as mundane as the living, relaying dull messages through Alison about refurbished kitchens, toothaches and lost items of clothing. If Alison embellishes what she hears, it is only for the sake of performance. In a bravura set piece, Alison and her band of psychic friends must manage a surge of clients following the death of Princess Diana, who remains confused and conflicted in the afterlife as she was when alive.

Not only does Alison commune with the dead but she is plagued by them and by one in particular, her ‘spirit guide’ Morris, a foul-mouthed, vulgar and violent character who is always with her, fiddling with his flies, pulling off her bedclothes and watching her in the bath. Colette, who veers between scepticism and belief, cannot see him, but when he joins them in the car, the whiff of sewage is unmistakable.

Alison is never alone and it appears, never has been. School became a nightmare for her when spirits would join her in the classroom, causing havoc for which she would get the blame. When Colette gets out of the car at a service station, some dead spirit woman will get into the driver’s seat and complain about her bunions. Morris makes himself known at the most inconvenient of times, throwing magazines around a shop and pulling women’s skirts up. This aspect of the novel is delightfully subversive, but there is another darker side to Beyond Black.

Morris has a gang of dead friends and associates, a crew of petty thieves and low-life gangster who were friends with Alison’s mother when she was growing up. Slowly Mantel exposes how Alison was pimped out and abused by these men by her drunken, feckless mother. Despite the fact that they are now dead, Alison can’t escape them and they continue to abuse and torment her, never leaving her alone and hinting always about the horrors they once inflicted on her. Her nightmarish childhood was one of pain and confusion, never knowing what was real and what wasn’t and she is now unable to escape it thanks to her ‘gift’.

At some point on your road you have to turn and start walking back towards yourself. Or the past will pursue you, and bite the nape of your neck, leave you bleeding in the ditch. Better to turn and face it with such weapons as you possess.

It sounds heavy-handed, but thanks to Mantel’s light touch, wit and skill, she expertly explores the damage that childhood trauma can inflict and the difficulty of leaving it behind. As Alison tries to move on from what happened to her, by doing ‘one good deed’ the gang of ‘fiends’ have other ideas and fight back from beyond the grave, determined to keep her in their thrall.

Mantel opens her thesis out to suggest that we are all in some ways the same as Alison, fighting the voices and memories of the past in order to create a better future. England itself, she hints, is in the same position. Colette and Alison buy a new build house, only to soon find that the gardens of their estate are being taken over by knotweed and strange substances are leaking up through the soil. The rot it seems runs deep.

Not every aspect of Beyond Black works; it’s overly long and a sub-plot involving Colette and her ex-partner doesn’t really convince, but Mantel deals with big issues with an intelligence and wit that makes for an inventive, droll yet serious novel.  

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26 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Having only read the first two Thomas Cromwell books, this one seems very different indeed. But glad to know that she handles more difficult themes with a light touch, and yet makes it so effective. I’d always meant to read A Place of Greater Safety but seems like this is well worth a visit too.

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  2. Great review of one of my favorite Hilary Mantel novels (I was actually looking at this a few months ago, thinking about a re-read) — many thanks! I thought Black was a brilliant novel, and one that had so much to say about how we deal with the past (or don’t, in some cases). As you point out, this is a heavy theme told with a great deal of wit and in absolutely beautiful prose (those first two pages, when Mantel sets the scene — “it was the time of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man, swinging by his foot from the living tree” –were absolutely brilliant). I’ve always felt that Black was rather under appreciated by Mantel fans, so it’s nice to see such a perceptive review.

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  3. I read this not long after it came out and I loved it! Aspects of it are clearly autobiographical as I read it back to back with her extraordinary memoir Giving up the Ghost. Strangely enough I could never get into Wolf Hall. I’ve made four attempts and got to the midway point before abandoning…

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  4. I read this pre-blog and “darkly comic” is certainly spot on as a thumbnail description. I’d be happy to reread it despite it having given me a touch of the heebie-jeebies! The deeply immoral Morris is like a character out of a Gaiman or Miéville urban weird novel.

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  5. Great review, it sounds like a fascinating book. Mantel was a great writer, I think her wit and humour are often missed but it definitely sounds like she hit the mark here. You may like Fludd which is a short, very fun and humane little book which I’d had on my shelves for aeons and kicked myself for not getting around to it sooner.

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  6. This was just too bleak for me (I find dark humour an especially bleak sub-genre of bleak) and I couldn’t get through it. Not a slight on the book, though, and I’m keen to read more Mantel.

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