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.


Sunday, 7 February 2010

J.B.Priestly, Harold Brighouse and Terence Frisby – Three Of A Kind.

In our local churches, halls, barns and pubs we enjoy all sorts of cultural musical performances, from large choral works, to soloists, violin recitals and, just lately, actors performing excerpts from various works. This latest took the form of a revue with Prunella Scales and Timothy West (keen to raise money for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury) performing ‘Battle of the Sexes’.

The programme consisted of over a dozen excerpts from various plays, essays and letters. All were chosen to fit the theme but some were more entertaining than others. I shall mention the funniest as we need something to laugh about on cold winter days: days when the news seems only to consist of dreary events and terrible disasters.

The piece I found particularly funny – along with the rest of the audience I might add - was from It’s All Right If I Do It by Terence Frisby. Frisby is a novelist and playwright: his long running comedy There’s A Girl in my Soup is well known but his novels not so much so.

The latest, Kisses on a Postcard, is apparently a funny and touching account of his experiences as a young WWII evacuee. West and Scales have now made me acquainted with him and having laughed out loud at the performance I am looking forward to reading his memoir.

Then a piece from Hobson’s Choice was moving and amusing. And the humour not dated at all. Prunella Scales had played the part of Maggie Hobson on the stage as a young actress and in this excerpt her husband, Timothy West, was very well cast for her partner, Will Mossop. As usual, it highlighted my ignorance of some writers. Hobson’s Choice is a play by Harold Brighouse first performed in 1916.

Maggie’s father is a dictatorial drunkard cobbler who refuses to help his daughters marry. Maggie proposes to Will, Hobson’s young and talented bootmaker, he accepts grudgingly, they marry, create a successful business and help Maggie’s sisters to marry.

The third I liked was from When We are Married, by J.B.Priestley. Priestly, born in 1894, became a well-known humourous writer and critic. The Good Companions, 1929, his first novel and his best known play, An Inspector Calls, 1936, must both be classed as classics now. When We Are Married is about three couples about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when they find an administrative slip means they have not been married at all.

We are given a glimpse of one couple’s reaction to the news. Timothy West plays Councillor Albert Parker (as he did in a 1987 production), a bombastic, sanctimonious, self-satisfied character with Prunella Scales playing his bored and brassed off wife, Annie. Albert says he will do his duty and marry Annie again – Annie says, no thank you, she’s had enough.

The audience recognises these well-observed characters that are as real to us today as they were when Priestley wrote it in 1938. Again, the humour is timeless and the acting by West and Scales excellent.

It’s not often you spend a couple of hours in church on a Sunday afternoon and come out laughing your socks off – hats off to the vicar for allowing it. And now it’s off to the bookshelves (or the bookshop) for me to find what I have got written by this lot, and several hours of very happy reading in the dull winter weeks ahead.