Beyond Black: A Novel. A John MacRae Book/Henry Holt & Company, 2005; 362 pages; $26
FROM THE DUST JACKET:A paragon of efficiency, well-schooled in the mundane tasks of an average existence, Colette took the next natural step after finishing secretarial school by marrying a man who would do just fine. After a sobering do-it-yourself divorce, Colette is at a loss for what to do next. Convinced that she is due an out-of-hand, life-affirming revelation, she strays into the realm of psychics and clairvoyants, hungry for a whisper to set her off in the right direction. At a psychic fair in Windsor she meets the charismatic Alison.
Alison, beleaguered by spirits since early childhood, lives in a different kind of solitude. She cannot escape the dead who speak to her, and the physical pain of their broken bodies -- least of all the constant presence of Morris, her low-life spiritual guide. An expansive presence onstage, in both the physical and the charismatic sense, Alison feels a bond with Colette almost instantly and invites her to join her on the road as her personal assistant and companion.
Beyond Black follows the pair as they create a new life together, both women struggling to retain control in the face of the material and metaphysical pressure of the modern world. When they move to an industrial wasteland in the ravished English countryside and take in a vagrant who also hears voices (but of a different kind), Alison's connections to the place beyond black converge with the scrutiny of her neighbors, threatening to uproot her life completely.
With her trademark wit and keen eye of humanity's eccentrics, Hilary Mantel brings us an irresistible account of the complications of lives lived at the edge of the spirit world -- and beyond.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The Sunday New York Times Book Review: In this book Mantel, back on her home turf of fiction (this is her ninth novel), allows herself to gorge on simile and metaphor and wild comic invention.... This is a dark, dark book, but it's fun to read because at heart it's a celebration of the joys of saying exactly what's on your evil little mind.... Flannery O'Connor, herself no mean connoisseur of the grotesque, once wrote: ''All comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.'' That's precisely the sort of mortal urgency you feel in Mantel's extravagant similes and bursting metaphors. This is, I think, a great comic novel. Hilary Mantel's humor, like Flannery O'Connor's, is so far beyond black it becomes a kind of light.
New York Magazine: Mantel -- a funny, scathing British novelist, too long ignored in the U.S. -- is a master of dark subject matter, and in her latest, she's created a protagonist who's accustomed to darkness.
One senses that Mantel writes so exhaustively about human evil because she hates it so profoundly. That makes her sound hopelessly do-gooderish, like a literary Bono, but Mantel's brand of morality has a kind of vicious glee to it. She gives us a story of evil overcome and wounds healed, but she also scares the pants off us. She would have us believe that the most appropriate response to evil is not tears but terror.
The Seattle Times: Beyond Black is a strange mix of the humorous, the gothic and the scrupulously documented. In skinny Colette ("Her mind was quick, shallow and literal, her character assertive") and soft, hefty Alison (floating like some overfed, gown-enwrapped queen bee from psychic fair to psychic fair), Mantel has created a winningly odd couple.
Colette, at one point, wishes she could arrange a "spam filter" for Alison's mind, and grows exasperated at how trivial the concerns of some ghosts seem to be.
"But that's because they're trivial people," Alison patiently explains. "You don't get a personality transplant when you're dead. You don't suddenly get a degree in philosophy."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel was born in 1952 in northern England to a Roman Catholic family of Irish descent. Among Ms. Mantel's major novels are A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Winner of the prestigious Hawthornden Prize, she reviews for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books and lives in England.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the day that we talked, Ms. Mantel was at her desk in England, in the home that she shares with her husband. I was happy to have the chance to chat with her. I have long found her writing of great interest. She's funny and carries with her, through her books, a grab-bag of arcane words. She rolls in language as a happy pup will roll in green grass.
Before our talk I had read her newest novel, Beyond Black but I also had reread her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost which I hope that anyone reading here will do. Our conversation opened with my asking, teasingly, "Why is it that you English ladies write so much better than do we American gals?"
"Write better? I don't know. I do a bit of teaching of writing. Occasionally, I go to give a course and get an American pupil. My reaction is they're just so much better than we are. Very often because there's a swiftness and directness and a wry approach to the old, plus a neatness of form. And I think we Brits have a lot to envy too. But in a way I suppose it doesn't make sense to talk about it in terms of national characteristics; it's just every author as an individual."
"Ah, but I wonder if we Americans are as wonderfully educated as are you Brits."
Ms. Mantel wondered too. "Well," she said, "we may find a change because the education system now is very different from the one that turned me out. One of the big complaints is that people don't learn much history nowadays. Or geography, or indeed anything, systematically. I don't know whether that's true or not. Although I must say I don't consider that I myself had a particularly good education, because it was the time, when I was growing up, which did very little science. Science teaching was quite poor. So you got a one-sided education.