I don’t wonder that reviewers fell over themselves in ecstasy, that end-of-the-year listmakers gave their approval: Hilary Mantel has apparently done the impossible. She has written a book, executed with balance, about the ugliest of things: death, child molestation, rape, mental instability, loneliness, suicide and hopelessness. Oh, and she made it funny. Beat that.
Beyond Black opens with a page and a half of some of the most accomplished prose I’ve read in a time, and, although the quality is not the same throughout, that short chapter showcases the book’s thematic potentiality. It is the “dank oily days after Christmas” in “marginal land; fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” It describes like a post apocalyptic world, but hardly: “It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies; the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel.” Suddenly we know we’re on the outskirts of London, and we also know, a line later, that we’re in a car with two women; that its 4am. In the back seat “something dead stirs and begins to grunt and breath”; the women are “fleeing”, “enclosed in an arena of combat”. Then, a narrative shock, and we’re dumped out of the impersonal third person into a first person mode, an unprecedented voice: “Its no good asking me whether I’d choose to be like this, because I’ve never had a choice. I don’t know about anything else, I’ve never been any other way.” Inherent in this short burst are all of Mantel’s best weapons in Beyond Black: vigorously confused narration, liminal space, the alienation of the familiar and a hint of the gory macabre all parcelled into that most ordinary of things, a journey home through the outskirts of the capital.
Alison Hart is a professional psychic working the esoteric fayre circuit, offering clients’ home visits and telephone consultations, a Tarot reader mostly but au fait with various kinds of divination. Her “gift”, however, is for speaking with spirits, for seeing the dead – those out “beyond the black” of the title - who lead confused, cacophonous existences divorced from the laws of time and space. She is never alone because spirits are everywhere; no sooner is she in the bath than they’re poking their heads (or other, ruder things) through the bubbles. Unconstrained by meaty dimensions they slip into everything – the draining board, the curtain rail, a tape recorder – and they cluster around her like bees around honey. She keeps herself fleshy (an uncomfortable size 26) to guard against their nipping and pinching; she’s crippled with their illnesses, feeling them and their memories intimately.
Keeping her sane and delivering her from one venue to another is her assistant Colette (although she prefers to think of herself as a business partner), a hard shell of a woman. She is thin, focused and sceptical, everything that Alison is not; imagine the pair as Mr and Mrs Sprat from the nursery rhyme and you’re half way to their oppositeness. Having left her husband Gavin, a man defined by his mediocrity, she moves in with Alison around the time of Princess Diana’s death and eventually they buy a house together, a box-shaped Collingwood on the new-build Admiral Drive (new build means less spirts) and attempt to settle into suburban life.
But Alison is haunted by an unholy cast of “fiends” - her disgusting spirit guide Morris and his ghostly mates: Donnie Aitkenside, Keith Capstick, one-eyed McArthur, Bob Fox and the mysterious Nick – all of whom share her childhood memories. These men from her past plague her, infiltrating her new home, garden, body and mind, becoming stronger and nastier, digging up memories that she has buried deep. It is this disinterment of Alison’s past that sits squarely at the centre of the novel, a series of horrible mysteries that itch to be solved: who were the men who hovered around her mother’s house and now haunt her? What did they carry in oozing boxes from the sheds, across the wasteland, at the back? Who was Gloria? And, over and over, who was Alison’s father?
Thus reading Beyond Black turns out to be an exercise in morbid psychological curiosity rather than in plot; offered tasty morsels you just want to creep a little nearer to the rotting nastiness you know must be at the centre of it all. The flow is couched retrospectively, although time and voice are very difficult to pin down, with the narrative leaping about confusedly, executing narration shifts between Colette, Alison and the omnipotent third person without the usual line or chapter breaks. Nothing truly happens in the novel’s real time, even though it spans nearly a decade, making the weight on the past, on memory and recollection, very heavy and draining away traditional momentum. However, this momentumlessness is vital to the narrative. It constitutes the tension, the suffocating claustrophobia that novel inspires and forces the reader’s imagination elsewhere. First it carries you inside into focused character study and, then, outside and beyond, foregrounding the creeping horror of suburban life and popular culture in modern Britain.
By getting so close to the workings of suburban life and twisting them only a little, Mantel reveals the freakishness at the heart of the ordinary. Her ear for neighbourly patter and middle-class watchwords is cutting; her 2.4 children families and her police officers are just that little bit distorted, at first ridiculous and then terrifying. Alison and Colette’s neighbours, Michelle and Evan, lean over the garden fence to share the smallness and meanness of their lives. It’s all rather close to the bone, all a bit sickening, as though Mantel had slotted my parent’s cul-de-sac behind some frosted glass and made me watch their day-to-day affairs. Equally, the banter of the “fiends”, about how nothing is the same as in the old days, is painfully familiar, echoing the formulations of our own generation of older people. The spirit world and the real world so juxtaposed prove mirrors: both the ghostly “fiends” and the corporeal members of Admiral Drive Neighbourhood Watch are spooks, motivated by unfathomable social laws and norms.
Inside is equally terrifying. Mantel does a wonderful job on Alison, confusing the reader as to her true nature and eliding her mediumistic abilities with psychological imbalance. Her “talents” are never confirmed – there is always a vague hysteria to her performances - and it remains open to question whether the “fiends”/spirits exist or whether they’re the manifestation of an illness that has its roots in her disturbed, abusive childhood. Implicitly, we are being asked to decide where psychicness ends and mental illness begins, or rather, to draw the line between imaginary and real threat. In some ways Colette is worse: heartless, careless and, most unpleasant of all, bland. Mantel has written a character impossible to sympathise with. In the final pages, a revelation of her that comes as no surprise: “…her heart was touched: where her heart would be.” Colette is as lifeless, as terrifyingly inhumane, as one of Alison’s spirits and yet also relentlessly human. It’s yet another of those disorientating juxtapositions that Mantel executes so well, forcing us to confront the inconsistencies of received reality.
Of course, this is all distortion through context. It makes us see ordinary life in the light of Alison’s world, and thereby alienates us from ourselves, reimagining what is familiar and what is alien. Dichotomy is essential, the picking apart of reality that forces us to confront the arbitraryness of our seperation of the living and the dead, the safe and the dangerous, the sane and the insane.
So is all this funny? I’d not call it that. There is humour there, and in another play with the title, it is “beyond black”, moving past the vulgar or crude or downright unacceptable into the freakish. It almost always arises out of horror and cruelty – the fiends, Colette’s bullying Alison, the sad ridiculousness of the auxiliary characters – and is more likely to elicit a grimace than a smile. Its making us see the painful irony of our values, provoking us to laugh at our own wounds.
Still, all my respect for the novel aside and despite its freakish humour, it remains a chilly and unrelenting read, rather akin to being pummelled in a hailstorm. It will almost certainly make the Orange shortlist, and deserves to (after missing out on every other honour), but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I imagine that to be the proper function of the narrative: to be repulsed and wickedly compelled, to finish with relief and satisfaction, in equal measure. Honestly, if I had enjoyed it, in the traditional sense of enjoying something that is, I’d be more than a little concerned about myself.