This is an odd book, and I'm not entirely sure I like it: but I do admire it.
Alison Hart is a medium, touring the venues of (mostly) south-east England and putting the living in touch with the dead. There's never any doubt about her powers: the dead are with her constantly, especially her spivvy spirit-guide, Morris, who has some unpleasant habits and is a constant reminder of Al's childhood. Her manager and friend, Colette, never really seems to realise what it's like: she's full of sensible advice (mostly pertaining to Al's weight and health, and the paraphernalia of her stage-show) but increasingly hostile towards Alison herself. Colette has a past, too: after an encounter with the spirit of her mother-in-law, she left her dull husband to look after Alison.
It's never quite clear how much Colette knows about her friend. Alison's past is literally horrific: her mother a prostitute, her childhood populated by an endless succession of her mother's clients, small-time criminals and worse. It's not clear whether Colette knows any of the details: it's only gradually, and indistinctly, that they are revealed to the reader.
The afterlife, in this book, is a grim and dreary place, an endless replay of all the most humdrum and unpleasant aspects of life. The dead are lost, and are always seeking something. Some of them even remember what, or who, is missing. There are hints that it's not this way for all spirits: but the ones who are drawn to Al are unquiet, unpleasant, uninterested in moving on. There may be a reason for this: by the end of the book Al's learnt something significant about her heritage, something that paradoxically made me think of her, and of the whole book, in a rather more positive light.
There are some fascinating incidentals. Modern interpretations of the Tarot (Four of Swords governing the Internet, Two of Pentacles for the self-employed); the pastimes and hobbies of the malevolent dead (making crop circles, unscrewing screws on fairground rides); the idiosyncrasies of various flavours of pagan, medium and New Age types.
The reviews of Beyond Black praise its wit and imagination. I can't fault the latter, but much of the former escaped me, unless they meant that black humour that comes from describing people as they really are. I'll certainly be looking out for more by Mantel, though: from the interview at the back of the book, it sounds as though several of her books have supernatural elements.
Moral of Beyond Black? Sometimes it's not enough to think nice thoughts.
"At some point on your road you have to turn and start walking back toward yourself. Or the past will pursue you and bite the nape of your neck, leave you bleeding in the ditch. Better to turn and face it with such weapons as you possess."
Some might think this an odd choice of reading matter for the journey home after my father's funeral. It didn't bother me in that respect. Alison's world is not mine, thank heavens.
reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place