Thursday, 18 February 2010

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Well before Hilary Mantel won the Booker with her epic Wolf Hall, our Book Group had chosen to do her novel, Beyond Black, about ghosts and ghouls. Well, fiends actually.

Mantel has the most amazing imagination and a wonderful way with words. Her main character, Alison, is an overweight, nervous but successful and gifted physic. She cannot remember what she did as a child, nor can she forget that it must have been something terrible. As a result Alison lives in a constant state of Purgatory.

Alison’s admits that her life as a child was disturbing. The illegitimate and unwanted child of a bitter and drug crazed prostitute, her family life was dysfunctional to say the least - she was maltreated and ignored in turn. And her surroundings were just as awful – she lived in a slum with no vestige of comfort, surrounded by the bleakest landscape, peopled by abusers, users and misfits.

Then as an adult she is constantly visited by ghosts. This is because, Mantel leads us to believe, when people are no longer earthside (alive) they don’t just go to Heaven or Hell. They hang about as spirits – like the fiends - for a long time in a state of neither here or there. In other words in Purgatory. The ghosts – fiends – that haunt Alison (and many of her fellow physics) are very real and thoroughly destructive. She hates them but is scared of upsetting them.

The horrors of her childhood slowly emerge as Colette, her PA, records her memories for a book. Alison has repressed these – not surprising when you find out what they are – and as a result is constantly goaded by the ghosts of her mother’s (and therefore her) former associates.

Mantel’s use of dialect and speech is particularly good – the sort of speech you might hear rogues use at a dodgy fair – the seediness palpable. But I did wonder if the non-Brits in our group might find it difficult to imagine the characters or appreciate the colloquialisms and turns of phrase. When our hostess read out sections the scales fell from their eyes. That makes it all sound so much better than it did in my head, they said. But too late, they had not gotten a feel for the book. So it did turn out to be a cultural thing.

Most of us enjoyed the book. The majority also thought it a bit too long. It was generally felt that a chunk out the middle – or more exactly two thirds of the way through – would have done the story no harm and the readers some good. But others enjoyed it less. They found some of the descriptions (mostly of the fiends’ behaviour) a bit too graphic and gross.

What I found most interesting was reading an interview and a review of Mantel’s autobiographical book, Giving up Ghosts. The parallels between the main character, Alison Hart, and Mantel’s own life were clear. Beyond Black is a very clever, amazingly imagined and well written novel. No doubt. But, for some in the book group, it was just too much of a good (or rather too much of a bad) thing.



CDR said...

Hello. Just passing through your site. It is well made. Well stop by when you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

There is an adaptation of Beyond Black on BBC Radio 4 on Woman's Hour starting on Monday March 1st. It is in 10 parts and stars Alison Steadman as the main character Alison Hart.