Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black

At one point in Hilary Mantel’s new novel Beyond Black, a minor character is asked what ectoplasm is. She answers, “it was supposed to be an ethereal substance that took on the form of the deceased”. That, I think is the best description of this book I can come up with – an ethereal work, that tries, but does not quite manage, to come alive as a novel.

That Mantel is a skilled writer, there can be no doubt (I say this based purely on Beyond Black – never having read her other novels). She has a quick eye, a nose for detail, a dry but effective wit, an ability to write crisp, energetic and eloquent prose, and considerable talent for evoking people and places. The scenes in Beyond Black are sketched with easy accuracy, the voices of the minor characters are almost word perfect, the little jibes and asides are extremely effective. Nor is Mantel a slouch when it comes to character development – the main protagonists of this novel are vivid and alive. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment here is the way the author, writing about the occult, manages to maintain a delicate balance between conviction and scepticism, telling us just enough to make us believe that there may well be some truth in all this talk about ghosts and spirits, but also providing sufficient evidence to suggest that a large part of what is experienced may be either trickery or self-delusion. To manage to keep one foot in both of these camps all through a 350 page novel is no mean feat [1].

It’s a pity, therefore, that so promising a talent should be wasted on so vapid and rambling a plot. The kindest thing that can be said about Beyond Black as a novel is that it is almost completely pointless. It’s the story of two women – a medium named Alison who’s struggling to come to terms with (literally) the ghosts of her childhood, and her assistant / partner Colette, who, unloved and unwanted, feeds on being needed and finds emotional solace in running other people’s lives.

It’s not an unpromising storyline – certainly there are allegorical possibilities in the plot (ghosts as metaphors of childhood trauma, ghosts as symbols of the fear of terrorism) – but it is never fully exploited. Instead we have a meandering story with little or no dramatic direction. Alison moans and suffers and experiences premonitions of dark forces gathering around her. Colette saves money and bosses people around. The pair go around talking shop with other psychics and being suspected of being lesbian by other people. Apparitions come and go, but add little or nothing to the overall plot. Vague scenes from Alison’s past return at regular intervals. There are some interesting notions about the spirit world (including some brilliant lines – like the one about people who’ve just passed over not realising they’re dead and thinking that they’re just on NIH) and the book tries repeatedly to come up with a coherent explanation of the afterlife, but these come out confused and fail to form a consistent picture. The overall effect is one of frustrating repetitiveness

One reason the book fails to work is that its central relationship – the connection between Colette and Alison – is never fully developed. Outside of the first two chapters (the only parts of the book that, in my opinion, are a truly outstanding read), nowhere do we get a real sense of the lives these two women lead together, or their reliance on each other, their intimacy, their bond. For 300 pages of the book, this bond, so central to the plot is left almost entirely to the reader’s imagination. Sure, we are told that they spend seven years together; yes, there are passages when they think to themselves how much the other person means to them; but there is never a palpable sense of connection between the two women. The result is that their confrontations, when they come, seem contrived, almost artificial. You keep wondering why either / both of them don’t just walk out.

My other problem with the book is its almost complete lack of direction. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning to the book that I just didn’t get. Perhaps there is a way of looking at it which makes all the different events and episodes make sense, makes them come together into a coherent story. Perhaps. It seems to me though, that the book lacks coherence. Events occur, scenes are played out, but there is no real explanation provided (or attempted) for why they should occur that way. The end, when it comes, seems clumsily tacked on – part deus ex machina, part arbitrary act. One gets the feeling that Mantel doesn’t really know where she’s going with the book, and just lets it play itself out, like a cat worrying a ball of string.

Bottomline: Beyond Black is a skilful, beautifully written novel with absolutely nothing to say. It’s an enjoyable enough read if you have time to kill and like competent writing; it is far from being a great, or even remarkably good novel, however, and if you go in expecting anything dramatic or insightful, you’re in for a disappointment.

Of the three novels from the Booker long list I’ve read so far, this would definitely be my last pick.

[1] Pun very much intended