Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black is a story about a psychic medium called Alison. No fraud, Alison can genuinely see and hear the dead, and in fact is frequently overwhelmed by them. She travels Greater London and the home counties with her personal assistant, a mean and unfriendly woman called Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, who is even meaner.
Alison is a good person but is also quite a pathetic main character: she’s massively overweight and seemingly incapable of standing up for herself; she lets Colette dominate and boss her around. Through the course of the novel we learn more and more about Alison’s childhood, which was truly horrendous: her mother was a prostitute and the ‘family home’ doubled as a brothel, with the most loathsome of the local criminal underworld passing through.
Beyond Black is a strange book. It has moments of high drama and real excitement, some chilling moments and it paints a picture of the non-material world that’s completely convincing, but for long sections very little happens. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable, it’s just that the pace can sometimes seem frustratingly slow.
My copy of the novel came with a number of ‘exclusive extras’, including an interview with the author in which she explains why this is:
The horrors of Alison’s childhood revealed themselves to me a piece at a time, as her memory reveals them to her, and as I reveal them to the reader. I didn’t want to force or distort the process. So I was aware I was taking risks with fictional form, with reader satisfaction.