beyond blackMarch 2007

The hubs of their business were the conurbations that clustered around the junctions of the M25, and the corridors of the M3 and M4. Hilary Mantel has set Beyond Black in contemporary England, in the area known as the Home Counties, a world of internet, suburbs and commuting. Alison – ‘of an unfeasible size’ – is a psychic, a genuine one, and Colette – ‘flat and neutral’ and fresh from a broken marriage – is her business partner, personal assistant and minder. So that Colette can give Alison the twenty-four hour care she needs when the spirits are troubling her, they buy a house together on a smart new estate. Colette persuades Alison to dictate her autobiography to increase their cash flow, and that is when the problems start. (It is interesting to note that this novel was written immediately after Mantel’s own autobiography).

Alison’s spirit guide is a nasty old man called Morris who used to know her and her mother when she was a child. Alison sees and hears him all the time, but Colette can only occasionally smell a whiff of sewage, which betrays his presence. When, in response to Colette’s promptings, Alison summons up sufficient courage to cast her mind back to childhood, Morris’s appalling erstwhile partners in crime, one by one, join him from ‘beyond black’ and contribute to Alison’s growing angst.

Gradually, the dreadful secrets of Alison’s childhood are remem¬ bered: what the men did to her and what she did to them in retaliation. And without revealing a fairly predictable ending, that’s about it, in terms of plot. The book is far too long, we were all agreed: it could easily lose a hundred pages of the meanderings of Morris and his mates, Alison and her fellow psychics – many of whom are not the genuine article – and the goings-on at the housing estate. But those of us who could bear to read such a deeply black book were agreed that Hilary Mantel is superb on description. ‘No one can do sleaze like her,’ a review insisted. She also has a marvellous ear for dialogue, for the way in which these women (and a couple of men called Merlin and Merlyn) have the ability to turn an outlandish profession into utter banality. It is as witty as it is dark and worrying, and that is quite an achievement.

Next month, on Thursday, 12th April, we shall be discussing two books by P.G. Wodehouse: Heavy Weather and Carry On, Jeeves.

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