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.
"But one could do a degree course in those days without paying fees and with a state grant. This meant that I could go to university, which I probably wouldn't have been able to do if there had been a fee-paying system. So my generation were quite lucky in that respect. We people who were born in the '50s and '60s, we got our secondary education free.
"It made a big difference in my life because now we have a fee-paying university system. Children from the background I was born in just don't go."
"Does your family read your books?"
"My younger brother does. My husband does, of course. My mother pretends to read them, but I don't think she does."
"I notice in Beyond Black that you've taken us to a part of England where not many English novels take place. Could you talk a little bit about that part of England?"
"Alison, my character, spends a lot of time not in London, but circling London. There's this huge roadway that loops around London. It's called the M25. Off this road are all the small towns from which people commute to London by road or by rail. A few years ago all these towns had a distinct character, but now they all look exactly the same. So if you take the wrong turnoff, it's difficult to guess where you are.
"I myself live about 25 miles outside London, in a place that five years ago was the country and is now cramped into houses, very like the ones on the housing that Alison buys into."
"Your description of these houses, both in Giving Up the Ghost and the new novel, makes them seem ectopian and terrifying."
"Well, yes, it is strange because they're all modeled on some housing style from the past, but then they have these atrocious decorations stuck on them that don't come from any period at all. So it's a sort of visual nightmare and distressing if you care about the purity of form or if you care about the vernacular architecture that a house is modeled on.
"They can't just make a plain house. They're conscious that everyone wants their houses to be a little bit different from the next one. Or that's what they think. So they're often a paradox, which is a sort of mass-produced individualism. It would look much more harmonious if they were all the same.
"But these communities, as we say, not that long ago were country towns. But now you get the feeling that they're all joined together, and the green spaces between are diminishing. This is, of course, the most heavily populated part of England. But it is small towns, places that no one comes from. No one has an ancestral link or a memory link to these places. Everyone has forgotten their roots, and it's tough for any sort of collective life. These are places where you never see anyone walking."
"Like Los Angeles."
"Yes, yes, exactly. But it's fairly new to this country. The result is no one knows his neighbors. I'm conscious of this because I don't drive. And so often drivers passing through stop to ask me for directions because I'm the only person they've seen for miles. Anyone you do see walking tends to be very old or very young. And then there's me."
I asked about Morris, Alison's "ghost."
"Alison, when she describes him to her audience, sanitizes everything to make things acceptable and pleasant. So she tells them that Morris is a circus clown. But really we see that he's a gangster and a fraud. And, of course, when he was alive and Alison was a young girl, he was one of the men who victimized and abused her.
"So I leave it to the reader to decide whether Morris is inside Alison or whether he is an outside force; whether he's an evil that she's internalized and she can't actually escape or whether he is in another reality and has got himself a job as a devil. So I really leave it to the reader to decide where to place Morris inside or outside my character."
"He feels sewn into her skin."
"Yes, they're so intimately connected, but of course she's always trying to escape the Morris part of her."
"Alison's a wonderful character and immediately you're on her side. I am never quite on Colette's side."
"She's a horror, isn't she? She has a generic quality about her. She's one of the generation that are Thatcher's children, and they live entirely by consuming. Alison is attached to an older world where Colette couldn't ever go. To use jargon, 'Alison is an old soul,' but Colette was just invented yesterday."
Alison attends many psychic fairs. I asked about these.
"Over the last ten years, they've been flourishing. There are the individual psychics doing an evening of entertainment. And then there are the psychic fairs where all of the readers set up tables, as I describe in the novel, and hundreds of people pour in and mill around, and they have their palm read or their cards read or whatever in this room that's absolutely roaring with noise. They're usually held in church halls or something like that. So all these voices are banging around above your head. Disconnected from the people who are making the noise. Which is quite spooky in itself."
Had Ms. Mantel attended many of these fairs?
"Yes, just out of curiosity, not out of any particular will to believe or with any particular question in mind. I have been for palm readings. I haven't particularly got anything out of the places. I don't have a story of something that came wonderfully true or some wonderful insight or anything like that, but little bits of knowledge that seem to drift around and you think, 'I mean, that's not absolutely true, but of course a lot of it is true of a whole lot of people.'
"So I don't have any startling story myself to tell. But, you see, I was interested in the audience, in love with the psychics and why people might so much want to believe. And what they need in their own lives that was bringing them -- you know, it's quite a lot of money, really. It's quite a good business. I was struck by the business side of it."
"Who do you read?"
"Because I write reviews, I read what's dictated to me. I read a lot of nonfiction, biography, and history. And then with novels, I don't have a favorite novelist, but now that I've reached a certain age, I've started doing a lot of rereading, and it's quite interesting to go back to books you read then; they can seem completely different.
"My favorite novelist, who I think is not very much known in the States, is Ivy Compton Burnett. Actually The New York Review of Books have brought out a couple of her titles recently. But she's very obscure here as well. She's very much a minority taste. But she's like no one else."
"Is everyone you know reading McEwan's Saturday?"
"I'll get to it over the summer, you know, but yes, it got an enormous amount of space. Well, Ian McEwan is pretty much top of the tree here, I would say."
"What a nice expression," I said, " 'Top of the tree.' That's another thing we were talking about, a friend of mine and I, about your book; you have so many wonderful expressions from which to choose. That was another reason we gave why we thought that 'The lady Brits,' as we were calling you, were so much better than we were."
"Ah, we tend to think of the Americans of having the vitality that has won out. One thing that is terribly difficult is to write the dialogues of these people, because the speech of southern England has broken down; its rhythms have completely vanished. People's speech is really ugly. Nobody has their own accent but has a sort of all-purpose accent that they picked up from television. They talk in clichés and advertising jingles. So there's something missing, and to write about characters from this part of the world is to take on this enormous challenge. Because if you make them eloquent, you're falsifying, because they're not eloquent. Whereas if you move away from the margins, if you move away to the margins, move away from the southeast, you'll still find that people's speech has a bit more vitality and rhythm."
"What part of the country did Ted Hughes live in?"
"He came from Yorkshire. But latter day he lived in Devon. But you could see in everything he did, the place he came from; you could hear it in every line, I think. It was very much connected to his native landscape. I don't know whether we'll ever see that again in anyone. The country seems too homogenous now.
"I still feel a bit of a foreigner in the south because I don't belong here, so although I've lived in the south for 20 years, I'm still an anthropologist here. I know I'm not a native, and I regard it as strictly temporary. In 1985 we settled down, quite near the M25, where we are now."
"What," I asked, "has happened to Anita Brookner? She put out no book this year."
"Did she not? It only seems the blink of an eye since her last one. She had mentioned she was going to take a bit of a break. But I think possibly no one took any notice and expected there to be one as usual. But she's well as far as I know.
"I like her. I like her very much. She went through a phase where everyone adored her. And then there was a great reaction, a sort of backlash here, and she couldn't get a good review from anywhere. But now it's come back her way -- I think for the last four books or so. Every five years, you get a new generation of young reviewers coming up. And I really think perhaps now, more mature consideration is being given to her fiction. I like them awfully. I've met her a few times, but she's a very reserved person, as you would imagine. I couldn't say I know her well at all. She's not shy. She's just reserved. She notices a lot and doesn't say much."
"You notice everything."
"Well, I try. I sort of take a snapshot of everything. Whereas Anita walks around, I always think, with a very appraising eye."
"What did you read as a child?"
"Just anything. Completely anything I could get my hands on. We didn't have many books at home, but I used to go to the local library, and there wasn't a children's section, there was just a children's book place, and I think I've read everything in it. Later, by the time I got to be nine or ten, I started to read Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brontës, and Dickens, who I didn't take to. I never really have taken to Dickens. I just read everything, whether it was meant for children or adults, whether it was suitable for me or not or within my understanding or not. If it was between covers, I read it."
"You could be between covers then too."
"Sometimes people say to you, 'Books must have given you a lovely, safe place to retreat to.' You think, 'God, what kind of books must they have read?' Because I liked books that could take you for the worst ride, you know. Being kidnapped and sold as a slave, or having a mad woman in the attic. It's all forewarning, as it prepares you for what life can do. You get this certain kind of wisdom."