When I’m on my way home from a trip in another country, if I find myself with a little cash left in some foreign currency, I like to stop at the airport bookshop and see if there’s anything that catches my eye. This time, coming back from Rome, what caught my eye was Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, which I’d been vaguely curious about since, um, 2009, not that I actually remembered that when I saw it in W.H. Smith.
When the book opens we meet Alison Hart and her business partner, Colette, in the car on their way to a gig. Alison is a medium, and not just someone who claims to have messages from the dead: someone who really gets messages from the spirit world, which she passes on to the paying public from the stage at psychic fayres or in phone consultations or in one-on-one in-person readings. But the dead hanging around Alison aren’t just any ghosts: her “spirit guide,” Morris, is one of the “fiends” from her youth—one of the lowlife/criminal/gangster types (guys who have fighting dogs; also guys who are rapists or murderers) who were always coming and going from her mom’s house. (Her mom, a sex worker, neglects Alison when she’s very little—though that neglect seems better than the abuse that comes later.Though the back cover describes this novel as “darkly comic,” parts of it just felt dark to me.) We get bits of Alison’s back-story, and bits of Colette’s, and bits of their day-to-day life over the seven years when they’re working together. (When Alison and Colette meet, Colette has just left her husband and is looking for a career change; Alison, who is often drained by her encounters with the spirit world (and, um, her childhood trauma) is looking for someone to help with the logistics of her work and life, and Colette capably steps in.)
I guess the darkly comic parts of this book are the parts about Alison and Colette’s life on the road and their life in the suburbs, particularly when they buy a new-build house in a still-in-progress development. (And OK, there are some funny parts about certain aspects of the afterlife, particularly near the book’s end.) Mantel writes vividly about the scenery of all the in-between places: “The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon.” Or the “crumbling civic buildings from the sixties and seventies, their exoskeletons in constant need of patching: tiles raining from their roofs, murals stickily ungluing from their walls” where Al performs. Or “towns where nobody comes from, these south-eastern towns with their floating populations and their car parks where the centre should be.” As suburban sprawl erases the past, the past is still there, all the unseen dead with the same preoccupations they had in life: Morris is always looking for a racetrack or a pub; as Al puts it, “they don’t become decent people just because they’re dead.” “On this side it looks the same as ever,” a recently-departed soul says about her hometown (and Al’s). Meanwhile, Al and Colette are both, in different ways at different moments, trying to change their circumstances—and it’s interesting to think about the ways in which they do or don’t succeed.