Mar. 7th, 2010

tispity: (Book fort)
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

They don't become decent people just because they're dead. People are right to be afraid of ghosts. If you get people who are bad in life - I mean, cruel people, dangerous people - why do you think they're going to be any better after they're dead?

Wow. I absolutely loved this gripping, blackly comic and genuinely creepy novel. Overweight Alison Hart is a medium (her fleshy folds provide a buffer, she feels, against the tremendous suffering in her life, both supernatural and otherwise), touring the soulless towns of London's commuter belt, bringing her punters messages from the other side. She is accompanied by her assistant, Colette, whose cold-hearted pragmatism provides a sharp contrast to Alison's compassion and supernatural sensitivity, and by Morris, her spirit guide, a thoroughly nasty individual whose seediness and criminal tendencies and been in no way diminished by his death. I love Mantel's chilling take on the phenomena of the spirit guide: the usual cliché, of course, is that psychics claim to be guided by some thoroughly enlightened individual, a druid or native American shaman. But surely these goodly types would have more pressing things to do on the other side than bring the middle-aged women of Slough messages from their deceased aunts? No, Mantel, postulates - persuasively, if chillingly - the sort of people who are more likely to stick around after death are those like Morris; characters with no particular calling other than a desire to cause misery to others in the name of "having a laugh."

Alison is a wonderfully large (no pun intended) and complex character, part victim, part therapist, part fraudulent show-woman, part living saint. The novel deals with her career across a large tract of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, taking in important events such as the orgy of national grief inspired by the death of Princess Di (a field-day for psychics) and of course 9/11. It portrays the ambivalence of Alison's relationship with the spirits, particularly those like Morris who she once knew before he passed over. Mantel writes of the spirit world in a way that is utterly compelling and very real, but it's also possible to read the novel as some sort of exploration of the lingering psychological effects of childhood trauma: Morris and his cronies are "friends" of Alison's Mum, a prostitute, and Alison only dimly remembers the most shocking details of the abuse she receives during her neglected childhood. She must force herself to relive these painful events in order to find closure and any sort of reprieve from the evil supernatural presence of Morris in her adult life. I like the duality of this presentation, the fact that Alison's simultaneous gift and curse can be read literally or psychologically. Mantel is similarly generous to the other mediums she portrays in the book. Whether or not we choose to take seriously their messages from beyond, we should admire their skill as performers and psychologists. Alison often gets details wrong during her shows - the spirits don't always tell her the truth - and even when they do, she prefers to pass on to her clients the details they want to hear rather rather than all the uncomfortable truths. It's an amazing psychological portrait.

I finished this novel with a sense that the real tragedy Mantel is trying to depict is not so much the wasted and tortured lives of neglected children like Alison once was, but rather the emptiness and shallowness of many of the other characters in the novel who have lost all connection to the past: people who live on brand new indentikit estates and do not know or care who their gran was. Whether good or bad the past has a force to bear on the present, we ignore it at our peril.

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September 2010

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