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Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black

Once again Mantel shows us that she is one of the finest writers in England today, tackling what could be a tricky subject, that of spiritualism and the spirit world. The temptation for many a writer would be to mock or to go super-Gothic but Mantel does neither, rather telling her story in a more or less realist fashion but peppered with wit and insight into the life of ordinary people. As she comments, the spirit world is a bit like Aldershot which, for those not familiar with this town, is a fairly grim and bourgeois garrison town in the South of England.

The story is about Alison Hart, a woman who has the gift. Not only is she able to speak to the dead (a term, of course, strictly forbidden in her profession) but she sees various spirit guides, the shapes of those departed, who, in her case, are those who were around in her childhood. As we gradually discover, she had a grim childhood. Her mother was a prostitute and neither Alison nor her mother has any idea who her father was. Indeed, her mother feels that it could be one of any number of men and does not care. As a child, Alison was brought up very poor but was also subject to much abuse, both sexual and physical, often with not only the connivance of her mother but with her mother’s willing consent, in exchange for money. It is these abusers and hangers-on/clients of her mother who are now dead but whom she continues to see. The main thing Alison has going for her is her gift. With the help of Mrs. Etchells, who may or may not be her grandmother, she sets up as a psychic, attending psychic fairs, giving consultations by phone and in person and dealing, in particular with Morris, one of her spirit guides, who takes great delight in causing damage, masturbating in front of her and generally being obnoxious. At this point, Colette comes into her life.

Colette was a fairly ordinary person. She had a job fund-raising for a large charity, a job which involved a certain amount of travel. It was while travelling that she met a fairly ordinary man, called Gavin, who was in IT. They had a fling and then got married and bought a house together. But Gavin was into cars and Lesbian pornography and Colette could see no future in the relationship. The crunch came when Colette phoned up Gavin’s mother and spoke to her, only to learn from Gavin later that day that his mother had died earlier. Speaking to a dead woman and Gavin’s casual approach to his mother’s death made Colette realise that she was wasting her time with him. She had started getting interested in the occult and met Alison at a psychic fair. When Alison said she needed a competent assistant to organize her, Colette agreed to take the job. She did indeed organise Alison, arranging her appointments, dealing with her health and other issues, setting up a website and trying to expand her business. Much of the joy of the book is the conflict between the spiritual Alison and the efficient businesswoman Colette.

But all of the action takes places against a background of the spirit world, about which we learn a lot. Not only do we meet the various spirit guides and Alison’s various colleagues, some of whom may be frauds, but we see the interaction between Alison and some of her colleagues on the one hand and their clients on the other, all of whom are looking for something or, more generally, someone. We do see the cynical and critical, of which Colette is one (she cannot see the spirit guides though does see their effects) but most of the people we meet are those in need of help, guidance and love. We also see key events and how they affect the psychics. The main one in this book is the death of Princess Diana, which Alison sees just as it happens, and which brings out many people seeking help and wanting to talk to the late princess (who, with Mantel’s usual clever wit, turns out to be somewhat more spiteful and catty in death than in life).

Alison does well with the assistance of Colette and soon buys a smart house in a relatively well-to-do suburb. Things change at this point. Firstly, we see the gradual onset of what can best be described the downfall of the suburban way of life, with knotweed taking over, a plague of white worms, possibly caused by radiation and, most importantly, the influx of immigrants and other poor people. Alison, who has a kindly soul, looks after Mart, a poor unemployed youth who has mental problems as a result of a blow on the head. She lets him live in the newly acquired shed, to the disgust of both the neighbours and Colette, when they find out, and to the amusement of the spirits, who cause him to hang himself. But, by this time, Colette has started to have enough. Gavin has popped up now and then and, seven years after they split up, Colette goes back to him, leaving Alison and leaving a world that she has never really understood but that is clearly different from hers.

Mantel’s great skill is to make Alison’s world, a world which many of her readers must have considerable scepticism about, seem not only real and convincing but of interest. It would be very tempting to mock this world but Mantel does not even once sink into this trap, treating it all as straightforward. We may look critically at the Alison Harts in real life but the Alison Hart of this novel is one we can readily sympathise with. She is a complex character, far more so than Colette, with her foibles but with a heart and with an identity and she is clearly a major literary creation. Another essential book by Mantel.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Fourth Estate