Sunday, February 2, 2014

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

Most people don't want to know about the future. They just want to know about the present. They want to be told they're doing all right.”

I've reflected a few times since reading Wolf Hall that Hilary Mantel's back catalogue is of particular interest to me, with novels about Robespierre, an Irish giant of the 18th century, and Beyond Black, about mediums, though it was completely different from what I expected. Indeed, I could find almost no stylistic similarities between Beyond Black and Wolf Hall; smarting from my experience with Affinity, I was expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me unto the last page. Instead, Mantel played it straight, which was a bold choice. The point of Beyond Black is to imagine that not only do the dead still exist on Earth, they are mundane, banal, nasty, and anything but spiritually-minded. Whoopi Goldberg's medium in Ghost being harassed and haranged is but the tip of the iceberg.

Despite what may seem a bleak premise, I found Beyond Black for the most part un-put-down-able. Its non-linear chronology and unconventional use of tenses makes for confusing reading at first but does not negatively impact the book because the premise and the two main characters are pretty solid pillars around which to weave a web. Describing Alison Hart, the main character and the medium, as a pillar seems pretty accurate. Despite the fact that I found some of the later revelations about Alison's childhood to be far-fetched, even for such a novel as this, in general I found her to be a great and sympathetic character. Alison is a large but, we sense, not unattractive woman. But it is her physical size—in part caused by, and in part excused by, her career—that defines her, especially in relation to the other main character, Colette, her business partner/live-in help. I appreciated the fact that Colette, as a very thin person, has a physical revulsion to Alison for being fat. In my experience, this is a very accurate depiction of very thin people, regardless of their other moral qualities; there is an impossibility in putting themselves in someone else's shoes. It's that old Victorian adage, to help those that help themselves. It's some kind of failing of will, on Alison's part, in Colette's mind, that she's fat.

Are Alison and Colette friends? As the book shows, they were once. But by the time of the book's main action, they are barely amicable. Alison can read Colette's thoughts, though. Colette, however, has no idea of the nastiness of Alison's “spirit guide,” Morris, one of her mother's old boyfriends who is frightening enough left to the imagination, bandy-legged, perverted, shallow, single-minded. Mantel has the audacity to suggest that the fiend paid another fiend one hundred pounds to be “reborn” physically as the son of Mandy, one of Alison's closest medium friends. The idea is enough to make one sick.

There is a lot of satire in this book, and I wouldn't encourage any budging Anglophiles to read it: it examines the worst of the UK from every angle. Colette is described on the back blurb as a “flint-hearted sidekick,” and I acknowledge that it's a challenge to make a character as close to Naturalism as Colette is interesting and sympathetic. Mantel just about succeeds, but (I think) the message she is trying to get across is that Colette is sadder in every way than Alison, despite Alison's insane career and extremely unorthodox childhood. Colette survives on “vitamin pills and ginseng” and surveys people's personal appearances like a hawk, but she has drifted into an unfulfilling and blah marriage with motor-car-obsessed Gavin before she has a “spiritual” experience (it's never clear whether she has imagined it, but it seems unlikely given it's Colette). This is what brings her into Alison's path. The challenge is in making us believe that a person like Colette would pay for supernatural guidance (tarot card reading, palmistry, crystal balls, etc) and then pragmatically throw in her lot with Alison to the point of mortgaging a house together. I think Mantel succeeds in this.

There is also an interesting creation of the sub-culture of real mediums. Their spats, their genuine sincere ability do their work against their adherence to New Age fads and kit, gender wars and the difference between old-fashioned practioners like Mrs Etchells (Alison's grandmother, possibly) and Maddy, for example. The satire on the death of Princess Diana in 1997—which is when Alison and Colette first start working together—is acid in the extreme, but also very funny. (I can understand now why Mantel made such cutting remarks about Kate Middleton.)

The master stroke in what Philip Pullman has called (on the cover) “one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language” is the unconventional way in which it's told, as I have already alluded. Unusually in prose form, Mantel has captured the ether by aural means, which means we often have to follow a script which signifies a tape recording of (usually) Alison and Colette talking. Sometimes Alison's spirits intrude. All of this is very entertaining and very sly. It's another way for conveying the mystery of Alison's past in a drawn-out and teasing way. Who is Alison's father? What did her mother's boyfriends do to her in her teens and which ones did what? What did she do to them as revenge? Can anything Morris says be trusted? Is the fearsome figure of Nick who we think it is? (SPOILER: Yes.)

One thing against which I have always struggled as a writer, and struggled with as a reader, is the ending. Unfortunately, I came away from Beyond Black with a sour feeling because the ending was disappointing. The more I thought about the book afterwards, I had to ask myself whether it wasn't all an excuse just to satirize British society. Which I suppose is a good enough aim, but I would prefer to believe there was more to it than that.

Like many readers, I suspect, I read through the pages waiting for Colette's man starting with an “M” to show up. I'm not convinced that he did, and in one sense I think the contract with the reader has been broken. If you're expecting me to believe that it's Mart, the gormless youth who hangs himself in Alison and Colette's shed, then that's a cop-out. That whole storyline piddled out in a disappointing fashion. There was such foreboding after Morris left and knowing that he'd return. Though the revelations were somewhat impressive, they felt a little muddled and anti-climactic, even after the death of Mrs Etchells. Furthermore, I'm not sure I understood the intent of the book at all if Colette was going to be allowed to slink back to Gavin. I'm glad that Alison ended the book with a new spirit guide and seemed to be enjoying herself for once, but resolving the Colette thread in such a way seemed wrong. However, when Morris started sobbing because Alison didn't want him to be her spirit guide anymore, that felt totally earned.

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