Book Review: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

It’s a fact universally acknowledged that people called Hilary are always the best at everything. Especially if it’s spelled with one ‘L’. And true to form, Ms Mantel won the Booker Prize in October 2009 with Wolf Hall, a book I really want to read but it’s about the size of a large-print hardbacked Bible and costs a massive £20 in Waterstones. So I’m going to review Beyond Black instead, which I found in a charity shop for a mere £1.50. High five!

Although primarily a ghost story, Beyond Black is also a book about women. The story revolves around women’s lives: the losses, disappointments and marginalisation that lead them to seek answers from Alison, a psychic who passes on otherworldly messages in dingy pubs and community halls just off the M25.

She’s no charlatan, but nevertheless Alison hides a fundamental truth from the punters: that the afterlife isn’t the happy, peaceful realm that people hope for. Yes, there are harmless old lady ghosts obsessed with missing buttons, and confused queues of spectral, doddery relatives. But there are also lowly, evil spirits.

Her guide is one of them, a grotesque and unhygienic spook named Morris who plagues Alison’s every moment. Her live-in ‘human’ guide isn’t much better, a ruthlessly efficient woman named Colette who is two-thirds bully, one-third matter-of-fact divorcee forging a new life as Alison’s live-in manager (“I’m not a lesbian”, she frequently asserts to Gavin, her ex).

Together they roam the South of England, which in Mantel’s novel is a wasteland: a withered landscape of oozing, polluted substances and toxic dumps, of traffic and service stations, truck stops and burger vans. A perfect home for the fiends, the ghosts of the evil men who took her childhood and haunt her now, wriggling out of the woodwork like the mutated white worms infesting her neighbour’s garden.

Aitkenside, Pikey Pete, Keith Capstick and the shadowy, dreaded Nick: dog fighters, abusers, criminals and murderers in life morphed into ungainly demons in death, almost cartoonish in their lowbrow wickedness: more horror-show gargoyle than otherworldly spook. They seem almost amusing at times, but the humour of their unghostly earthiness and appetites pales as Al gradually remembers the details of her past.

Bleak? Yes, but Mantel lightens the mood by dwelling on the mundane details of life, of trips to buy sheds, the psychic fairs, hen parties and Al’s bland neighbours and their squalling children. And mirroring this is the blandness of death: the old lady looking for her friend- even the fiends’ desire for pies and racing. She layers light, deft touches of humour on even the harshest of Al’s recollections until the overall effect is one of deep and resonant contemplation.

Alison is a monumental character, perfectly well realised and sympathetically drawn. Quiet, large and tactful, she walks the Yin/Yang line of the everyday and the spiritual, balancing the novel’s twin spheres of light and dark. It’s perfectly done and it entrances the reader while the multi-layered,  non-linear narrative draws you in. This dualistic, at times alarming and hugely funny novel is Beyond Black, indeed.

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About Hilary Wardle
Hilary is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes for a wide range of websites, magazines and newspapers, including Buzzfeed, MSN, The Poke, Chortle, the Guardian and the Independent. She specialises in arts and entertainment, comedy, video games and viral content. Contact her at Hilary3@gmail.com.

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