I spent most of Sunday reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which I bought back in December of last year, because of the Philip Pullman quote on the front: “One of the greatest ghost stories in the language.” Once bought, it sat on my to-read shelf for about six months while I furiously disbelieved Mr Pullman and regretted buying it. It’s literary fiction — how can it be a great ghost story? Literary fiction most often doesn’t do stories, let alone ghosts, and when they do, they have to be all ironic and meta-para-textual about it.
But I saw Hilary Mantel interviewed on BBC2’s Culture Show a few weeks ago, and felt sufficiently re-enthused when it turned out she’d seen something like a ghost when she was a kid, so I picked up the book and gave it a go.
However, I didn’t spend so much of Sunday reading Beyond Black because it was necessarily page-turning. (It is well written, and quietly humorous.) Rather, it was because the middle section was a bit dull plot-wise and I wanted to get it over with so I could start Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. However, it did at last repay the effort, as the ending provided a real sense of chill, as well as the possibility of emotional release for its long-suffering heroine, the psychic and medium, Alison Hart. (Real name Alison Cheatham. “I changed it,” she says. “Think about it.”)
The story really gets going when Alison’s live-in manager/business partner, the non-psychic and somewhat sour Colette, suggests they write a book to “flog” at the various psychic fayres and gigs Alison makes her living from. Taping interviews with Alison proves problematic, as her voice can sometimes be drowned out, on playback, by all sorts of whistles and whoops and other ethereal noises. But Colette pushes on, and we start to hear of Alison’s awful childhood. (The full revelation has to wait to the end of the book, as certain parts are a mystery to Alison herself.) Neglected by her prostitute mother, sexually and physically abused by the coterie of male hangers-on (all of them petty criminals) — this, most of all, is what haunts the sensitive Alison, as well as the feeling that she herself did something terrible, which has driven her, all her life, to try to do something equally good to balance it out.
Though humorous, it’s hardly a feel-good book. The language is generally soaked in a feeling of the drab futility of things, the essential difficulty and lack of fulfilment of life. But what came through for me was Alison’s faith in human nature and the need to do good despite all the wrong that has been done to her. The central idea, of Alison as a medium surrounded by so many spirits of the dead, is really used well by Mantel to bring out the emotional truth of her main character’s situation.
Worth it in the end.