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Book review: 'Beyond Black' by Hilary Mantel

"Beyond Black" by Hilary Mantel (Picador, 2005). Photo Credit: Picador

BEYOND BLACK, by Hilary Mantel. Picador, 432 pp., $16.

British writer Hilary Mantel's first novel, "Every Day Is Mother's Day," told the story of a woman who was sure her house was inhabited by evil spirits that broke her ornaments and left notes telling her to stay out of the kitchen (or whichever room they had decided to colonize that day). Evelyn would occasionally work as a medium, but it's hard to believe she was very successful at it -- the one time we see her conducting a seance for a client, who happens to be her next-door neighbor, she tells her something that no recent widow wants to hear: "'Mrs. Sidney,' Evelyn said, 'your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell.'" Mrs. Sidney disappears into dementia soon afterwards.

That's not exactly the way for a medium to drum up business.

Mantel's new novel, "Beyond Black," also features a psychic, but Alison Hart has a much better feel than Evelyn did for what her customers want to hear. She does private consultations and works psychic fairs, but the book's big set pieces show Al performing onstage in seedy theaters, a cross between Oprah, John Edward and a stand-up comedian. Some of her messages are so generic they could be meant for anyone: "Your daddy's still keeping an eye on you," she tells one woman who's actually looking for her boyfriend, who had been killed in a traffic accident. She can be tart: "Look, darling. Let me give you a word of advice," she says to a heckler. "Cut up that credit card. Throw away those catalogues. You can break these spending habits - well, you must, really....Or I can see the bailiffs in, before Christmas." That's a pretty pointed comment, but could still be seen as a lucky guess, a psychological extrapolation from the woman's appearance.

But sometimes Alison says something that seems like it could only have come from the dead, as when she tells a woman in the audience that the baby she miscarried 30 years earlier is a grown-up man in the spirit world, that he's been looked after by other relatives and that he goes by the name she had picked out for him while she was pregnant: Alistair.

Spirits have played a role in many of Mantel's books, including her 2003 memoir "Giving Up the Ghost," in which she describes her sadness at selling the weekend house where she last saw her stepfather alive, and where she frequently thought she caught glimpses of his ghost on the stairs. But the ghosts have become more insistent between Mantel's first book and her most recent. We the readers never saw the dead in "Every Day Is Mother's Day," and it was hard to tell whether Evelyn herself actually saw them or whether she was just insane. (She clearly was insane, but that doesn't mean she didn't see ghosts, too.) But the ghosts in "Beyond Black" are fully fledged characters, some of whom are alive during flashbacks to Alison's childhood and dead during later scenes, or maybe they were actually dead during Al's childhood -- it's all quite difficult to tell.

Alison's childhood was so horrific that she can't remember large swathes of it -- to call it "Dickensian" barely begins to describe it. Her mother, Emmie, was a prostitute who tried to give herself an abortion while pregnant with Alison; when that didn't work, she sold her daughter to her clients for acts so unspeakable that they remain more or less unspoken in the book, described only in the roundabout way that Alison can bear to remember them.

As an adult, she lives with two people: Colette, her no-nonsense assistant - or business manager, as Colette herself would say -- and Morris, her spirit guide, an uncouth sharpie who was one of the (then-living) "fiends" who tormented her when she was young and who continues to torment her from beyond. Alison's past and present begin to collide when Colette starts interviewing her about her life, with the intention of writing a "best-selling book" to boost Alison's visibility and income. (What Colette doesn't know about the vagaries of publishing could fill a book on its own.)

Perhaps this doesn't sound very promising to you -- a novel about a psychic and her unsympathetic sidekicks - but Mantel makes it work, brilliantly. I often find that my most memorable reading experiences come when I pick up a book that doesn't seem to be my cup of tea and get hooked by the sheer power of the author's talent. A really long historical novel about magicians in 19th century England? No thanks, I thought, until I read "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell." A book about guys who draw comic books? Not unless it's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." "Beyond Black" belongs on the shelf of books I picked up reluctantly but then couldn't put down.

Part of the appeal is in Mantel's astringent sense of humor, a particularly British form that she has in common with some of my favorite writers: Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Trapido. Like Margaret Drabble, she connects the most mundane of domestic concerns with the larger state of the world. Then there is Mantel's style: She writes beautiful prose, with sentences elastic enough to contain both the mundane and the profound, ornamented with just the right metaphors to serve her purpose. There's a funny paragraph in "Giving Up the Ghost" about finding a style for writing memoir, which could apply just as easily to Mantel's fiction:

"This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, would you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell said, that good prose is like a windowpane....Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop with those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood....

"But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don't use foreign expressions; it's elitist.) I stray away from a beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency - windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren't they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can't see in?"

Mantel makes you work a bit for your entertainment; there are curtains hanging on the windows of her books so you can't see all the way in. If Alison isn't quite sure what happened during her childhood, neither are you. But it's in that space between the writer and the reader, the space where you interact with a book and re-create it in your own mind, that the most rewarding reading experiences are born.

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