It was with an unfamiliar combination of excited anticipation and extreme trepidation that I embarked on Beyond Black. Having succumbed with every fibre of my being to the mighty prose of Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell masterpieces, I suggested an earlier novel to our Book Club, desperately hoping to evade disappointment. I need not have feared.
The ‘action’ (such as it is) takes place in and around the drab, homogenous small towns of the Thames Valley and the home counties. Here the two main characters exist in an unlikely and unhappy partnership, working at Psychic Shows in social clubs and village halls, venues which largely indistinguishable from one another, and living in Admiral Drive, situated in an exquisitely imagined suburban housing estate.
In between the vivid descriptions of Alison’s constant trauma, due to her inhabitation of a place somewhere between the spirit world and the real one, are flashbacks to her deeply horrific upbringing at the hands of a depraved prostitute mother and her thuggish punters, in what is surely the very definition of a den of inequity. Meanwhile, Colette’s former – rather pathetic – existence with a hopelessly emasculated petrol-head of a husband hangs around in the background of the novel like a bad smell.
The story edges along in almost imperceptible increments punctuated by a few cornerstone episodes: Alison battling against the torment of her truly revolting and thoroughly corrupt spirit guide Morris; Princess Diana’s death and the way it intrudes roughly into the lives of the psychics; Colette’s micro-management of the purchase of the “Frobisher”- the ‘top of the range’ house on Admiral Drive. Yet despite the inanity of these events, I found myself gripped.
What is astonishing about the novel, and something all the members of our book club noted, was the frequency with which Mantel manages to eek out a chortling kind of humour from such dire circumstances and from such miserable, largely irredeemable characters. We laughed out loud many times.
But the clincher for me in terms of the book’s success is that, as a lifelong sceptic of all things related to afterlife, from almost the first page I was compelled utterly to suspend all disbelief and fully buy into the concept of the authenticity of Alison’s psychic powers. Even though Colette remains unconvinced for much of the novel despite witnessing evidence of its legitimacy at close quarters, as a reader you do tend to “believe”.
We debated whether the spirits that taunted Alison, and almost sapped the very lifeblood from her, were in fact just the demons of her childhood coming back to haunt her imagination. And yet in the end, that doesn’t seem to really matter. We loved the intensity and originality of the book, and Mantel’s thoroughness did not let us down.
With thanks to Sophie Brooks who contributed this article on behalf of the Book Club