There's not much here in the way of plot, but still there's a lot to recommend in this novel about a professional psychic--who really does see ghosts--plying her trade in the working class suburbs of London.
Lots of reviewers complained they didn't know where the book was going. Don't you just love when you don't know where the book is going? There were so many different layers to this book, I am actually considering re-reading it (and I hardly ever do anything like that, because you know, so many books, so little time, etc.).
The catch is, this "fake" psychic really does see dead people. As if that's not bad enough, her spirit guide, an evil little heavy-drinking imp, has been hanging out with a truly nasty crowd - the very fiends who made Alison's childhood so miserable. If you get people who are bad in life - I mean, cruel people, dangerous people - why do you think they're going to be any better after they're dead?
Beyond Black (Picador, 2006) is mainly about the dead haunting the living, but its not in the way they go into the corners in dark and open creaking doors, there are no ghosts scaring the shit out of people as we see in horror films.
Alison is a psychic/medium, a good one, but rather disorganised. There are lots of spirits around Alison, most of them men who abused her in one way or another, who seem to be carrying on with their existences as they come and go. The descriptions of the psychic circuit in the south of England, in dingy town halls and plastic hotels is very funny. As time goes on, she is also abusive to Alison. There is a good deal to provoke thought, quite a lot of humour (Alison and Colette living on a middle class housing estate and being mistaken for lesbians), some quite close to the bone descriptions of violence and abuse, which have more force because they are slightly understated; but ultimately the book runs out of steam before the end for me and the characters became arther irritating.
You know those books, the ones that aren't bad, but aren't good, but you're not entirely upset you read, but they don't really inspire you to find anything more by the author.
Every time I told someone I was reading this book, they inevitably mentioned Wolf Hall, Mantel's most recent novel and winner of the 2009 Booker Prize, and tended to assume I'd chosen Beyond Black because I'd already read Wolf Hall. I felt like Alison was only deemed 'charismatic' because she was overweight and thus 'larger than life', while Colette had much more of a personality (eg her forceful haggling with the property saleswoman for discounts and extras on the pair's new house); and as expertly and subtly revealed as the horrors of Alison's misery-lit-worthy childhood were, I had a hard time feeling sorry for her.
The spirits inhabiting this world are thoroughly believable.
And heres the thing: people dont get any smarter or nicer when they die. Mantels wit cuts like a knife through the middle class, the lowest of the lower class, the way heavy people are treated, real estate developers and New Age believers. This is very unlike Mantels Cromwell books, and just as good in its own way.
Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.